Review by Gemma Keliher
If this past week is anything to go by, this year’s Brisbane Festival appears to have upped the ante, with productions seeming to be getting more collaborative and extravagant. Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall’s Holding Achilles is a perfect example of the extravaganza that wowed it’s opening night audience, stemming from a collaboration with Brisbane Festival, QPAC, Sydney Festival, and Glass Half Full Productions.
A reimagining of Homer’s Iliad, Writer, Director, Co-Creator, and Co-Designer David Morton has taken the story of Achilles and Patroclus and slightly shifted the lens through which a modern audience views it. While it is one of the best-known stories, particularly from Greek mythology, anyone who may be a bit past remembering their high school Ancient History need not be worried as the story presented on stage is accessible and easy enough to follow. Focusing primarily on the love and loyalty between Achilles and Patroclus, it re-examines their relationship through a queer lens, as well as questioning what it is to be a real hero.
The epic nature of this production makes it hard to categorise; it is part play, part physical theatre, and weaves aerial stunt work, puppetry, and live music into an experimental work of massive proportions. While I could easily go on for pages describing all the individual and amazing elements involved, some of my favourite moments included the manipulation and aerial work with spears, the introduction of the puppet of Heracles the bear, and the representation of the army of ships sailing to war – this imagery was incredibly striking.
I particularly love sets that appear simplistic in nature (but which actually contain an extreme amount of thoughtful design), and for a production that not only incorporates so many theatrical elements but takes the audience across many locations of varying scales, the design gave the freedom needed for the audience to imagine this grand story playing out in front of them. Anna Cordingley’s work as Costume Designer and Set Co-Designer with David Morton allowed the mythical world to develop on stage, aided by the always brilliant lighting design of Ben Hughes. Under the direction of Movement Director Joshua Thomson, the physical nature of the show was incredibly strong, bold, and precise. The cast and ensemble had no easy feat with this production, but the level of ease that was presented on stage demonstrates just how well-rehearsed and choreographed every moment was. It only took the first 20 minutes in to have me considering if I needed to go home and sign a gym membership. An absolute highlight of this production was the music composition, the otherworldly tracks by Co-Composers Tony Buchen and Chris Bear with Montaigne -performed live by Montaigne who was weaved into the story as Achilles lost mother Thetis - provided a haunting and moody addition to the visual imagery and physical storytelling. Montaigne was ethereal in her role and performance and couldn’t have been a more perfect addition to David Morton’s adaptation.
Leading the cast as the troubled but redeemable hero Achilles, Stephen Madsen was nothing but grace and control in a physically demanding role, while maintaining the balance of a character that holds both love and brutality. Karl Richmond as Patroclus demonstrated a hero in his own right and brought a tenderness to his role that nicely offset his counterpart. Ellen Bailey in multiple roles as Ajax, Hector, and Puppeteer (Baby Bear) showed incredible versatility and her strength as a physical theatre performer shone. Nic Prior as Paris and Chiron wowed the audience with their interpretation of the centaur Chiron, not only demonstrating great character work but moving with astounding ease on the stilts used to mimic hooves – even performing aerial stunt work in them. Rounding out a strong cast of performers was John Batchelor as Odysseus, Lauren Jackson as Agamemnon and Lead Puppeteer (Bear), Thomas Larkin as Meneleus and Peleus, Christy Tran as Briseis, Jennifer Vuletic as Priam and Chrsyses, and Johnas Liu as Ensemble/Counterweight. This production depended heavily on the work of the cast as a tightknit ensemble, which seemed to be in a strong place for opening night.
This is an epic story full of magical mythology and larger than life characters all set to the backdrop of a large-scale war. It almost doesn’t sound possible to stage – and yet Holding Achilles managed the impossible. While it is entertaining and highly engaging for those who may not be familiar with the original story, somewhat more knowledge will allow the nuances of the re-telling to come through. The real hero of this story, however, is all the Creative team, Production team, and cast who have created a piece of theatre with some truly magical moments of visual imagery and physical storytelling.
Image Credit: Dean Hanson