This is the greatest story of war and also the greatest story of reconciliation.
It's a story about vengeful anger which ends in a transcendent act of forgiveness.
And it's a love story between two soldiers at the most brutal of battle fronts.
The plot is simple. The Greeks have been besieging Troy for nine years without success, camped on their beach-head. An argument kicks off between Agamemnon, commander of the Greek army, and Achilles, the army's greatest warrior and totem. Enraged by an ofence to his sense of justice, Achilles refuses to fight and retires to his tent.
Without Achilles the Greeks are weakened and the Trojans are driving them into the sea when Patroclus, to save the Greeks from annihilation, puts on Achilles' armour and takes his place in battle. Dressed as Achilles he is inspired to fight like Achilles and he tears through the Trojan ranks, turning the tide of battle, until finally he is killed by the Trojan hero, Hector.
Achilles is unhinged by grief. Slaughtering Hector is not enough to appease the violence of his emotions and he goes on to descecrate the body of Hector, day after day, dragging it around tied to the back of his chariot.
The gods are powerless to help. The goddess Hera is as unhinged with grief and anger as Achilles.
What if anything can end the descent into mindless violence and chaos? How can Achilles disentangle his anger and his grief?
Astonishingly, this story which, above all others, understands the unendingness of anger and resentment, also creates the most powerful and enduring demonstration of peace and reconciliation.
The play opened on 20th April 2016 at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. It was directed by Mark Thomson, designed by Karen Tennent, costumes by Megan Baker, lit by Simon Wilkinson, and the composer was Claire McKenzie. The cast was Jennifer Black (Hecuba/Servant to the Gods), Peter Bray (Paris/the River), Emmanuella Cole (Hera), Richard Conlon (Zeus/Calchas), Ameira Darwish(Briseis/Helen/Aphrodite), Benjamin Dilloway (Hector), Ron Donachie (Agamemnon/Priam), Melody Grove (Thetis/Andromache) Mark Holgate (Patroclus), Reuben Johnson (Diomede/Lycaon), Daniel Poyser (Ulysses/Hephaestus), Ben Turner (Achilles)
I became very conscious of war because my partner was getting chemotherapy and we were going to Queen Elizabrth Hospital Birmingham which also has a military care ward for soldiers evacuated from battle. It seemed that every time my partner and I got into the lift, we were enclosed in a confined space with a young soldier in a wheelchair accompanied by his wife or girlfriend. You could see what the loss of a limb or two had done to both of them, and their relationship. The lifetime of anger and grief ahead.
I re-read The Iliad and went to Mark Thomson at the Lyceum with the idea and we took it from there. Mark was clear that he didn't want to do a show which was about a particular war - about Afghanistan, say, or about Syria. And in any case The Iliad is not about war as such, it's about anger - the first line of the poem and the play tells us that. We didn't want the audience to be saying to themselves, "This is a story about war." We wanted them to be thinking, "This is a story about me."
One part of the solution (weirdly) was the gods. Most often when The Iliad is dramatized the gods are removed, perhaps out of atheist embarrassment. I wanted to keep them. At the outset I was picturing them as having the quality of 1960s gods - Kennedy and Princess Grace, Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe - deeply flawed demi-gods operating on a cosmic scale. In the end the production went even more contemporary, picturing heaven as a present day Cannes beach with imaginary yachts offshore.
Theatrically this gives a visual contrast with the world of armour and shields and tactics and sweat, and it instantly sends a message that we might be telling a story about ancient Troy, but more importantly we are telling a story now, this minute, right in front of you.
Interestingly, the gods introduce a different note. In a way we don't take them so seriously. They can't die so what's the worst that can happen to them. They feel deeply but they cannot be tragic, or at least not in the sense that Achilles and Patroclus are. Being immortal, they are non-tragic and non-epic, so they belong to a different genre from the human characters in the story and most likely that is the real reason they are usually cut, because we have a horror of mixing genres.
I was happy to have two worlds on stage because it creates different perspectives, asks us to open up more. It's basic postmodernism.
And anyway, The Iliad is a cosmic story played out in heaven and on earth. The gods are an integral part of the story. They too have to wrestle with the problem of anger and how to resolve it. What if they fail?