Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Scotland’s acclaimed Company of Wolves re-imagines the myth of Achilles in a heart-stopping solo performance. Fusing storytelling, movement and song, Achilles is the epic story of a man’s exorcism: a burning out of his grief, his rage and his humanity.
It is the ninth year of the war and Troy has not fallen. Smoke fills the room as Ewan Downie takes the stage with an unbridled ferocity which immediately demands attention, as he regales us with the story of the death of Patroclus, told in vivid, brutal, and gruesome detail and setting the stage for the bloodthirsty vengeance of Achilles in relentless pursuit of Hector. Fusing dance, physical theatre, prose, and raw, dynamic acting Ewan Downie breathes new life into the ages old tale.
There are innumerable stories of the Trojan War but this particular story of Achilles battle with the Trojans is generally overlooked for a theatrical retelling in large part due to its sheer epic scope, so to attempt it as a solo performance is laudable. Over 45 minutes Ewan Downie details the fall of the Trojans at the mercy of Achilles blood lust for his fallen friend. Drawing heavily from the translated text of the Iliad, Mr. Downie displays impressive physical prowess and a tremendously skilled handling of the prose, taking on the roles of Achilles as well as the Trojan soldiers as Achilles cuts a swath of destruction through their forces on his march to defeat Hector, however the lack of a distinct point of view leaves the overall feeling of an emotional disconnect with the audience causing some of the more dramatic moments to fall flat, an unfortunate consequence made more apparent by the limitations of the venue. Following the death of Patroclus, Achilles engages in an extended act of keening, writhing in slow motion while eliciting a song so strained, in an unfamiliar tongue almost as if he were a man possessed, guttural, the effect preternatural. It is a stunning display of physical theatre but extended too long to hold the audience, the effect awkward and uncomfortable, magnified by the awareness of the space, a mylar floor which does not extend to the edges and a lighting system inadequate to isolate the actor. I was left with the impression that this moment would have been highly effective in another space which would have allowed the audience to be transformed by a more neutral theatre environment rather than so painfully aware of the studio space we occupied.
This vagueness continues when Achilles attacks Trojan soldiers and drives them into the sea and Mr. Downie takes on the role of the dismembered and drowning soldiers, creating a momentary empathy with their agony and fear, but never fully embodying any character within the narrative distancing the audience, the overall impression somewhat sterile. At times it seems as though the narrator empathizes far more with the Trojans than with the hero of his own narrative, a confusing juxtaposition as we are asked to celebrate the victory of Achilles over Hector, then immediately reminded that Troy has not fallen, a point of pride for the Trojans. Given the strength and power of Ewan Downie’s performance this directorial choice was a continued frustration serving as a distraction from the narrative, rather than allowing for the narration to organically connect to the characters which it depicts.
Far more successful is the adaptation itself which requires no prior knowledge of the legend of Achilles or the Trojan War, as the choice to depict such a specific moment in the Iliad, and to hone in clearly on the actions, intentions, and motivation of Achilles serves well to inform the audience quickly of where we stand in the timeline. Where so many other adaptations fail or feel heavily weighed down by exposition, we are immediately thrust into the action, fully immersed in the present without the feeling of playing catch up to the Gods. The sheer physical energy and commitment exhibited by Mr. Downie’s performance is more than worth the price of admission and a few minor changes to increase the theatricality of the piece will move it quickly from exciting to groundbreaking work. In truth, I am hoping that this piece has a long and fruitful life after the Fringe and I look forward to seeing it grow and develop and would recommend it to anyone interested in the Iliad or in seeing truly breathtaking physical theatre.