Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Iliad - Seeking the Light

Last weekend, right after an awesome book launch (thanks to everyone who came!), I was at a two-day rehearsal of the Iliad (June 14, National Arts Centre).  All 18 tellers gathered, many from our 2012 journey with Homer's Odyssey, and many new faces, as well, joining us on this epic journey.

Producers Jan Andrews and Jennifer Cailey lead us through a series of exercises to deepen our understanding of the story and the characters.  The Iliad, for those of who you haven't read it in a while (or at all), is a very dark tale.  It's the story of the end of the decade-long siege of Troy by the Greeks. The warriors are weary and homesick, the battles are harsh and bloody (and there is lots of tripe), and the emotions are raw. We brought Odysseus home from the fields of Troy last year through the Odyssey, and I think only now do I understand why he was so weary. Not just because of the horrible journey home, but also because of everything that preceeded it.

Homer also intended to drive home the point that everyone on that battlefield came from a home and still had loved ones, somewhere, waiting for them. When the text was chopped, which it needed to be for length alone, they ensured those moments weren't lost. Because, without understanding who falls on the fields of Troy, we can't really grasp the full impact of the story.  It'll make for a lot of memorization of names, that's for sure!

I had a strange moment during this weekend that I shall now ungracefully unpack right here on this blog. I'm the second teller (after the introduction setting up the story) to march through the fields of Troy, so I was done my bit early this weekend. No longer worried about remembering my own part, I immersed in the rest of the story much more fully than I usually would.

There came a piece in the story where Achilles learns of the death of his best friend (and potentially lover), Patroclus.  He's devastated, grief-struck. It's raw and painful to watch this greatest of heroes come undone at the news, guilt-wracked that he was responsible for his friend's passing. The friend who came to give Achilles the news asks that Achilles give him his knife, lest he slit his throat in grief.

The teller told this piece beautifully, but the line didn't jump out at any of us. It's a dark text, so talk of potential suicide wasn't that surprising. Then, Jan and Jennifer asked that the teller understand the depths of Achilles' despair.  To understand the knife as more than an object, but also as a character.

Suddenly, this throw away line become pivotal to the story.  This is where everything could have ended.  This is where Achilles could have marched quietly to the Halls of Hades to join his friend, and left the bloody fields of Troy behind. This was the moment where Achilles fell at his lowest, because he might have taken his own life. The teller was asked to go around the circle of tellers and do various exercises, including convincing us that we, as Achilles, needed to take the knife.

We did lots of exercises like this over the weekend, but this one stood out for me. I rarely have trigger moments - I consider myself a very non-triggery person, overall.  But as that knife was being requested time and time again, give me the knife for I fear you may slit your throat with grief, I remembered a time long ago when I asked the same of a close friend.  Give me the car keys, for I fear you will drive yourself to your death. 

There's more in that line than a request, and I suddenly understood the whole baggage of it. It's not just about taking the knife. It's about a promise, too.  Give me the knife, and I shall take care of you. I'll make sure you see tomorrow, and that somehow it gets brighter.  I'll find out how to help. I'll learn what I don't know, and I'll listen and cry with you, and even should the darkness never lift, I'll still be there. Because I'm terrified of this knife, and of the silence it promises. Because I don't want to know that world where the knife was used.

Understanding of the Iliad becomes raw when you begin to peer into its darkness, and superimpose it with your own. Shades of gray turn to black with little warning. An innocuous force squeezes your heart into tiny little pulp.

But the light is still there.  The light, it's more there because of the darkness.  One teller began describing the new armour of Achilles, given to him by his godly mother who knows it will not save him. She knows Achilles is fated to die on the fields of Troy. But she gives him a better armour, either out of hope that it might make a difference after all, or perhaps as a final gesture of love. We don't know - Homer didn't say. But we can imagine.

And when Achilles donned his resplendent armour, it was beautiful.  The armour captured that beauty, but it was the silence around his actions that made the light shine at that moment.  It was the belief in what he was doing, why he was doing it, and how he still took the time to admire his new armour that would more than likely see his doom.

Even as he dressed for a battle he doubted he would return from, we found beauty and light in that moment.  Because he found it. So, through the characters, we find the darkness and the light, in moments reflected by our own experiences and psyche.

We're working now on finding a way to end this full day of telling.  A moment that brings back the light.  A moment above the fields of Troy, closer to the sun, where listeners will get to remember the beauty in the darkness.

We haven't found it yet, but I've no doubt Jennifer and Jan will. They've both fought their own battles and have always found the light. They will for us again, once more.

Until then, however, I personally don't mind the darkness. It reminds me of the importance of memory and history. Of the loved ones waiting back home, away from the battle. Of the friends still standing on the battlefield with me.

Of the importance of seeking the light, no matter how far we may fall.