Carriageworks, January 19


It was too good to last. The run of gold-standard shows had to end sometime, and it comes to a shuddering halt with Holding Achilles. The bear puppet is good, the ships are wondrous, and the aerial work – including the stylised fighting – certainly has its strengths. But this ambitious production seems to have been so preoccupied with presentation that it forgot the basics: story, characterisation, dialogue and acting.

The latter is mostly as wooden as the famous horse that gets a mention at the end. The fault for this, however, can hardly be laid entirely at the feet of the actors, given the dialogue is as thin as watered wine and akin to the worst you encounter in soap operas: all false notes, platitudes and slogans, with a complete absence of subtlety, let alone subtext. The baldness and melodrama are exemplified when Achilles asks, “How long will this cycle of violence go on?”

Patroclus and the bear. Top: the cast with Montaigne. Photos supplied

Occasionally stunning performances can disguise amateur writing, but not here. No emotion really rings true until near the end, when Patroclus is killed, and Stephen Madsen’s Achilles unleashes a cry of anguish and fury that reverberates through the room and draws you into the heart of the moment. If only more of the show could have this confronting authenticity.

Don’t go looking for Homer in this telling of the love between Achilles and Patroclus (Karl Richmond), because it’s only very obliquely based on The Iliad. Essentially the creators, director David Morton and movement director Joshua Thompson, have shone a spotlight on that relationship (with Patroclus portrayed as the younger man), and peopled the shadows around their love with such versions of Odysseus, Agamemnon, Hector and the rest as they thought suited their purposes.

To be fair, these Homeric legends been almost universally ill-served by theatre, film and fiction. When even the gifted Stephen Fry could not make his novel Troy convincing, breathing life into epic characters without them mouthing inanities at each other is clearly challenging.

The show, here having its world premiere, is a collaboration between aerial specialists Legs on the Wall and Dead Puppet Society. Consequently, its strength lies in its visuals, even if it is far from either company’s best work. The most striking visual coup comes when 77 30-centimetre-tall ships magically appear as the Greek fleet sailing for Troy. Then there’s a large disc that flips between being a stunning sun and moon (concisely marking the passage of time), and a giant bear that’s beautifully realised by five puppeteers, the non-literal creature having a truth that’s absent from the verbal performances – although even then its death leads to some pure Disney when the bear’s cub comes to mourn its mother.

Patroclus and Hector. Photos supplied.

The aerial depiction of Achilles and Patroclus swimming is mesmerising, and spear fights become ballets set to the pervasive, dramatic and sometimes cliched music by Tony Buchen, with input from Chris Bear and singer Montaigne. The latter, who represents Achilles’ mother, the sea nymph Thetis, performs live the wafting songs included in the score.

Yet all this becomes merely a veneer when so much is amiss beneath that surface. Even the love between Achilles and Patroclus is something we are shown rather than made to feel, and so you don’t really believe it or them any more than you believe Odysseus (John Batchelor), Ajax/Hector (Ellen Bailey), Agamemnon (Lauren Jackson), Menelaus/Peleus (Christopher Tomkinson) or the rest. It might have been better had they let Achilles go.