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National Theatre Wales Iliad review – ‘grandeur and beauty’

Ffion Jones, Richard Huw Morgan, John Rowley and Rosa Casado in National Theatre Wales' Iliad. Photo: Farrow Creatives Ffion Jones, Richard Huw Morgan, John Rowley and Rosa Casado in National Theatre Wales' Iliad. Photo: Farrow Creatives
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Christopher Logue probably didn’t expect War Music, his retelling of Homer’s classic fable, to be performed verbatim on a stage in Llanelli. That National Theatre Wales tried is admirable – that they’ve succeeded is remarkable. The two Mikes, Pearson and Brookes, are no strangers to ambitious projects. Previous NTW collaborations The Persians and Coriolan/us were grand in scale, but Iliad isn’t just grand – it’s a twelve-hour epic.

As untruly teenage gods watch from above, Agamemnon’s Greeks march towards Troy to battle the Trojans. Only six of ten live performers are given oratory power, thanks to microphones hanging from the heavens. The other four bring a minimalist set to life, moulding black tyres and white plastic chairs into formidable fortresses and towering trees. Like nameless soldiers in a war, they’re crucial to success but without voice or personality. The physical exertion is astonishing to watch but, at times, does detract from the storytelling.

Admittedly, distractions are inevitable in a piece of this length. Like war itself, the storytelling begins with a roar, lulls, then roars again as each episode of this ‘boxset’ reaches its cliff-hanger. All the while an ominous cacophony of strings and percussion blares across the theatre, both signifying the climactic events and echoing the beats of a brutal yet majestic war.

At the heart of this visceral attack on the senses are the storytellers. Moving around the space like generals surveying their battlefield, they utter Logue’s words with grace and precision. The final sequence is oddly anticlimactic but effective nonetheless: the generals on one side, their soldiers on the other, staring defiantly. And scattered around them are the audience: exhausted, bleary-eyed, survivors of a long, arduous, unforgettable journey.

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An adaptation of an adaptation, this 12-hour epic has both Homer’s grandeur and Logue’s beauty