Wednesday, June 04, 2014

This Flesh is Mine: a playwright's response

This Flesh is Mine: Iman Aoun as Hecuba.  Photo: Richard Davenport

This is a guest blog, written by Tim Grana, who contacted us after seeing This Flesh is Mine.  Tim is a playwright residing in St. Albans and currently working on a Shandean play based on the life of Laurence Sterne.

I did not ‘see’ This Flesh is Mine: rather, I was utterly immersed in a thoroughly gripping and visceral experience of what theatre—and only theatre—can, at its very best, do in illuminating and enriching our understanding of humanity.  It was a magnificent production of a brilliant play, one that not only captures the senses and emotions during performance but continues to resonate in the mind thereafter, confronting us as it does with those unquiet questions that will not be stilled by facile answers.   

Among the play’s many remarkable achievements is the seeming effortlessness with which it immediately conducts a modern audience into a genuinely ‘Homeric’ world. But not in the sense of an ‘adaptation’: it is a full-bodied re-creation of what it must have been for an ancient audience hearing a minstrel singing the Iliad: thrilling stuff, bursting with vitality, energy— with drama-- nothing like the often stilted or literary translations that we know.  This Flesh is Mine follows the Iliad in tapping down into the deepest strata of raw humanity, in precise and economical verse pitch-perfect to each character, and thereby unearths the fundamental drama inherent from the conflicting drives of our human nature.

The play takes us into a timeless realm of human universals, our modern world and the world of antiquity bleeding into one another by degrees, for human emotion is both timeless and universal, whether in actions of heroism or folly, or capacity for insight or self-delusion.  There really isn’t any ‘partisanship’ in Homer, in that the Trojans can be as heroic (and as foolish) as the Greeks, everyone can offer ‘good’ reasons for foolish actions, and there is something in the human condition that ever pulls us into tragedy if we are not wary—and often enough, even when we do perceive that risk but cannot find the saving graces of compassion, and forgiveness.  And that, I think, is how this play, which draws so deeply from the ancient wisdom of Homer’s drama, can speak so eloquently to our modern times.  There is no simple mapping of the players of the Trojan War onto the current parties of the Middle East, but there is a compelling illumination of human folly, intransigence, machismo—but also the faint but precious flickers of real courage, insight, and humility without which we must all perish.  It’s remarkable that there really aren’t any villains in Homer, just human folly, and an acknowledgement of the inevitability of that folly:  we can at once celebrate Achilles’ courage, strength and valour while witnessing the horror and devastation such ‘virtues’ unleash.  The play brought to mind a favourite quote from the American Civil War leader, Robert E. Lee: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”  

Andrew French as Achilles.  Photo: Richard Davenport
The characterisations of Achilles and of Hecuba were particular highlights for me, compelling and complex characters, with different facets of their inner selves coming into view as the play progressed.   Achilles remained attractive and sympathetic to us even in his most deluded and petulant moments—even, indeed, when desecrating the corpse of Hector.  And the depths of strength, sorrow, and suppressed rage that would bubble up from within Hecuba were among some of the strongest moments for me.

Many other delights in the play could be highlighted:  the skilled portrayal of the complex relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, or the playful suggestion that the hunt for Helen would be as futile as that for the phantom WMDs of Saddam—and by extension, that to search for ‘cause’ in conflicts that may have been raging even before our own births may do nothing to resolve them. 

 In one brief moment only did I feel the play lose a little focus, in the scene in which Patroclus seeks to borrow the unmistakable armour of Achilles, for he “cannot stand by”, as Achilles in his wrath can, while their fellow Achaeans are perishing in the face of the Trojan counterattack.  Achilles agrees to Patroclus’ request—too easily, I felt—and helps him don it for battle.  But on reflection I think this was not a fault in either the script or the performance, but for once simply in the distance between Homer’s world and our own.  As consuming as his wrath toward Agamemnon may be, Achilles’ love for Patroclus is greater—and through that love he acknowledges Patroclus’ need to fight for the sake of his own sense of honour.  If this is not too trivial an analogy, I suppose this must be something like the love that compels us, despite our fear, to loan the car keys to the teenaged son who has freshly won his driving licence. 

My one significant crit would be:  this play needs a longer run and a much wider audience. Even more specifically, I think Messers Bush, Blair, and Netanyahu should be compelled to attend a performance—and in an ideal world, that performance in a prison in which those gentlemen were detained without possibility of parole.  Well, like Achilles, I say, “A man can dream…”

Tim Grana

No comments: