Fringe Online 2021
Jermyn Street Theatre
Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Historical, International, Literature, Live Literature, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, One Person Show, Online Theatre, Poetry-Based Theatre, Storytelling, Theatre, Translation
Written and performed by Natalie Haynes. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till July 24th.
Natalie Haynes is back – after her Pandora’s Jar/Honour Among Thebes at Jermyn Street Theatre in June earlier in the Footprints Festival, here she is with Troy Story. She’s had a fight with an inanimate object.
The Four Trojan Cycles
Four epic cycles. It’s worth mapping them out. Well this is educative, that’s why you’re here apart from being entertained by Natalie Haynes, whose riffing is worth trying to convey at the same time. Not sure if patronymics are de rigeur here, it seems sense to refer to Haynes as Natalie.
The first part the Cypria, first nine years isn’t here. The Iliad covers the ninth year. The Aethiopis, telling the story of Penthesilea the Amazon and the Ethiope – other than the book of poems of Sappho the most grievous loss of all from Greek. So we lost the poem about the woman about the black guy. Thus male pale and stale would have been gloriously traduced.
Then there’s the Little Iliad with the horse, Iiou Persis, the Nostoi, journey home from where we get nostalgia, the yearning for home. Such a naff word has such a pedigree. And Telegony. These are short fragments. Then finally The Odyssey.
The irony is the two most famous things we associate with the Trojan war – horse and Achilles’ heel – don’t happen in the Iliad, since they postdate the ninth year happening in the last one. We know them from Virgil’s epic 29-19 BC the Aeneid written by the Simon Armitage of his day. Book IV’s the greatest narrative poem in any language.
We’re at the Trojan Horse, where the incredibly sceptical Trojans are won over only because the Gods send a sea-monster to devour the young sons of Laocoon the sceptical priest.
On a discovery in 1506 of the sculpture of this that so pleased Livy (digression on Livy the Elder’s fate) Michelangelo and Raphael argue over the positioning of the arm as a repair job. Raphael’s friends win the straight-arm version and 30 years alter an even straighter one goes on celebrating rather than up in horror. It remains till 1910. And Ludwig Pollock comes across an arm in a stone yard, which is the actual arm. So Michelangelo’s won and amazingly a statue bar a son’s hand is restored.
Natalie has a great way of knocking a fifth wall in just to keep everyone so cheerfully engaged. She asks Stage Manager Ayesha how long she’s been on? 25 minutes just on a Horse?
Origins in Leda and her Swan
So there’s Leda falling for a swan even if it is Zeus in disguise. So you’d really ask your god to come back with more feathers and a beak? Seems many painted this as erotic. Tintoretto. Where guilty Leda’s trying to disguise Zeus as swan, it does look weird, you’re banging a swan! Leda’s married by the way and has nine children. Helen’s the result of swan sex. Leda’s given the eggs to look after. The story of a man and his wife come up to Natalie after a lecture, (Natalie says don’t bother emailing me after a show, it’s done!) and says he’s a fisherman and a swan netted looked at him with adoring eyes. This with his wife in attendance….
After the three-apple choice. The choice of who should marry Helen fell to Odysseus who wisely chose her cousin Penelope. Like all his plans it’s nearly brilliantly working. A really good idea, if whoever tries to abduct her from the chosen husband will be set on by all other suitors as an oath to get her back. That goes well.
Then there’s the Helen in Egypt living chaste in a palace where after ten years the son of the host falls for her and things fall apart. This story 8th BCE is as old as the Iliad. And then there’s the air Helen, sent to Troy who dissolves after Troy falls. Stesycorus who exist in fragments. There’s three other Helen versions, lost to us. A Helen who eats three kids goats a day. And what should be the most famous – the other raises a bilingual sheep. That’s the entire sentence – fluent in sheep and goat?
At 39.20! Three’s a 30-minute sprint through The Iliad, Natalie has notes on 19 of the 24 books.
At 50 minutes we’re back. Now in fact (spoiler!) it’s clear online there’s not the 30-minute Radio 4 slot claimed but just on 40. The Natalie of the interval doesn’t yet know this. She doesn’t know JST have cunningly allowed an overspill, given her last show was 75 minutes when Natalie sprinted off the stage.
This account of the Iliad was written 14 months ago and never tried before, so Natalie knows we won’t mind, gaslighting the whole room. Natalie wants everyone to clock each book, and the first is long!
The original Greek is touched on ‘Sing Goddess of the rage of Achilles’ a properly destructive anger. The whole 24 are given over to it.
But it’s not called that. It’s called Illios, poetic name for Troy. The tension the dissonance between solo rage and a city’s fate is the tension of the narrative. This is why we follow the poem, this precise tension. The rage and a domestic counterpoint of a city under siege.
Now after the first two books we get the Iliad by lightning, interpolated with Haynes-speak splinters of brilliance. Some of us can only regret we didn’t get two hours! And say two intervals.
But read on if you want to know the Iliad this way! It’s far easier to give a summary with flavour than some bland overview. You’ve made it this far.
Achilles and Menelaus the King who lost Helen, row over Briseis (digression on Natalie’s fear of bugs, anything more than two legs including two mice tied together… In media res, no-one wants the backstory, George Lucas!). Um row over Briseis…. OK, that needs a touch of exposition.
So, looting further and further afield, there’s women brought back are divvied up as objects. Achilles leader of Myrmidons has done a terrific job and awarded a war bride Briseis by his men, whereas Menelaus has been awarded Criseus, whose father of nearly the same name is a priest, who asks for her back. And he has power when refused, and his god Apollo, chief of plagues sends one of those.
Didn’t think of that two years ago – why didn’t we appease Apollo (applause) as everything else almost has failed?
When the Spartans threaten to leave, the Spartans, even Agamemnon the Olympic hurdle-jumping rabbit of irritability pleads he’s outdone by his brother Menelaus (who’s not planning on celibacy over these ten years, bless him). Finally beaten Agamemnon demands Briseis of Achilles.
Achilles’ famous sulk last 19 books, the longest strop in literature. We think of Achilles through this book as the great warrior, yet 19 of 24 books he’s sulking and enjoying Patroclus. Different framings of masculinity. The Iliad is unparalleled in ways of masculinity in classic literature. Achilles wants the Trojans to win the war and sends his immortal mother to Zeus with that message.
Women always fight as a gang. Homeric heroes are always individual. Except Achilles friend/lover Patroclus. Packing up and going home should have been one of the most incompetent things – it’s a mere test – possible in history and myth. But then there’s the last months in the UK.
Isaac Asimov suggests if Helen can launch a thousand ships there’s a Milli-Helen of each ship. OK. At least it’s not millipedes then we’d get another Olympic leaping rabbit in here. Natalie really really can’t stand bugs.
That’s the Second book….
After this Natalie becomes a sprinter out of Marathon, and the rest are brilliant glances-off from sheer narrative pace managed in fifteen minutes.
‘We’re at the end of two books after 15 minutes, good to know there’s another show at the end, no hostage scenario.’ Actually Natalie’s given a little more time, latterly saying ‘five… ten.. no five?’ and we’ve seen this before. Natalie knows her narrative arc is up against this and flung it against football and show deadlines back in June, never mind Radio 4. It’s part of the fun, part of the Haynes Method of sprinting epics.
Natalie pauses for a flash. She reminds us. ‘The editors of Pysistsrius suggest this finally took shape at the end of the 6th century by the way.’ As if she has all the time in the Iliad. And I’m not responsible if I’ve occasionally scrambled some book divisions!
suggests Paris is effete (hat wearer) and a womaniser, interesting. It’s about his hat Aphrodite scoops him from Menelaus and sends him back to Helen who disdains him as a coward but Aphrodite commands, she has no choice. The next scene has Priam and Helen looking over the parapets and Homer allow Helen the first woman to speak in this poem, points them out. Priam would have known but it’s exquisite.
has a Trojan woman lie and force the end of the truce by commanding someone to firing an arrow. Carnage. Helenus faux-prophet brother of Cassandra who can see and famously is never believed suggests an offer to Athene will help. Off the battlefield Helenus goes to his mother Hecuba – of course Athene’s implacably opposed after Paris chose Aphrodite… A statue is offered as avatar. That works (spoiler: not a cat in hell’s).
And there’s the Bechdel Test. Two named women having a conversation about something other than man! It passes the test!
Helen’s unpopular with everyone. Simon Armitage ‘Helen of Joy Helen of Slaughter’ great line has a touching scene with hector who then sees his wife.
Their chid cries prophetically, a devastating moment (spoiler). If Andromache’s advice were followed he’d survive. There’s no arrogance merely believed necessity.
A touching meeting of sexually attracted but distant cousins. Blink.
A meeting about ships and provisions. Blink again. What?
The Greeks are losing, digging ditches, always a bad sign. An embassy’s sent to Achilles. Trojans winning, Briseis is offered back, un-ravished. Achilles goes on a night raid captures and tortures a spy who tells them about a Thracian warrior sleeping. Achilles kills him, takes his horses. ‘I’m not saying these heroes were nice people by the way.’
Achilles still sulking … Even Natalie can’t make Book 10 exciting.
Hector discussing the war – Shakespeare used this as the famous conference in Troilus and Cressida. Then….
Patroclus tries to undo some damage by working as a war medic tending to wounds. Nice touch. Doesn’t often happen we get such an account.
Hera loathes Aphrodite whom she loathes back… But Hera can’t bear to see Greeks suffer; is lent a magic bra by Aphrodite (who’s sort of pro-Trojan, getting Helen for Paris) to seduce Zeus.
Hera, not the most amorous of gods, seduces husband Zeus and the euphemism is superb: ‘sends him to sleep…’
Zeus wakes furious and demands all Gods’ interference must henceforth cease. Yeah. That works.
Patroclus will no longer see Geeks pushed back, healing as a medic no longer helps, and he finally begs for Achilles’ armour. Achilles warns him just like Andromache has Hector in Book Six. It’s a mirror image and infinitely touching, as well as touching on gender and sexual politics. Patroclus actually kills an actual son of Zeus – really never a good idea – Patroclus is a good fighter but not as good as Hector, whose friend wounds Patroclus, then Hector move in for the kill. Nothing noble. Hector just butchers a wounded man.
Ironically Hector loots Patroclus’ Achilles-lent armour. Menelaus tries to ransom the body: no way. Just remember the Trojans were stubborn about bodies first.
Achilles collapses to the ground, Homer appears in an interpolation unusually, and suggests Achilles might kill himself. There’s a furious denial amongst scholars who really don’t want to believe homosexuality was invented till Wilde. I mean there’s a few hints in Plato… Achilles’ mother Thetis get Hephaestus a god to refashion a new suit of armour overnight.
Achilles goes out kills everyone in his path. Greeks who’ve been fighting 18 books want to go back, being knackered. Fresh, Achilles pursues.
Briseis has 14 lines! She says – according to Patroclus – Achilles was very kind to her. There’s a horse named who can speak. He has 10 lines. Just saying.
Achilles and Hector meet. Hector does run away. Athene tricks him pretending to be a friend. The fight’s so brief.
Then there’s the famous drag round the walls of Troy. Which sounds a little like a Fox drag with men in red coats being the drag.
Funeral Games for Patroclus not Hector. Hector’s body doesn’t rot because a god Aphrodite protects him
Patroclus’ body is burned, poured into a golden urn. Hector’s still there, Aphrodite still protecting. King Priam meets Achilles crossing the lines pleading on bended knee for Achilles to return his son’s body.
At first refusing, Achilles allows him to buy back the body of his son. Priam is allowed to take the body back, Cassandra prophesies, ignored. There’s the funeral, Andromache now has no hope. Hecuba inveighs against devastation. Helen, who was Hector’s favourite sister-in-law, makes a speech. We end in a city, Hector a domestic figure as well as warrior, Priam having the final words.
And literally Natalie Haynes runs off the stage quoting a line number and cheerily waving as she bids an exhilarated audience sort of adieu.
Again it’s the most educative stand-up and a thrilling presentation. Oh and bloody funny on war, male sexuality and the Bechdel Test.