Homer's classic tale retold

Put together a New Zealand acting legend with one of the Dunedin Sound’s shining lights and you get part gig, part play, Fortune Theatre artistic director Jonathan Hendry tells Rebecca Fox.

Shayne P. Carter and Michael Hurst have been closeted away in remote places at different ends of the country, but with the same goal in mind - creating a different take on Greek classic The Iliad.

''We're bringing some fresh thinking to our 2018 season, which includes offering our audiences new ways of experiencing theatre,'' Fortune artistic director Jonathan Hendry said.

''An Iliad will be a production like none the Fortune has produced before.

''After the sell-out response to That Bloody Woman, it became clear that Dunedin enjoys epic stories spiced-up with rock music, humour and politics.

"An Iliad has the energy and directness of a damn good night at the pub - a night where you drink in great sounds and stories with your local brew.''

Fortune artistic director Jonathan Hendry (left) brought New Zealand ‘‘legends’’ Shayne P. Carter...
Fortune artistic director Jonathan Hendry (left) brought New Zealand ‘‘legends’’ Shayne P. Carter (centre) and Michael Hurst together for An Iliad. Photo: Gregor Richardson

It is a play Hendry had always wanted to do after seeing the original, written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, being performed at the arts festival in Wellington 11 years ago.

''I love the simplicity of it. A musician and a actor. Part of what the play does is changes to whatever venue or community it's talking to,'' said Hendry, who will direct the show.

The writers did not want it to be anti- or pro-war although people say the play it is based on by Homer is one or the other, he says.

''You certainly get the feeling they are telling the story of the fall of Troy with Archillies and Hector and these legendary figures from all those movies and TV shows - the heroics and heroism as well as some of the barbarism, stupidity and horror of war.

''What it did really well was talk about us in the middle of it, so it will reference our own men who have gone off to fight in wars. It's about the ordinary people who are caught up in this situation.''

It was originally performed with a double bass player and an actor.

''It felt potent. Something really exciting that I hadn't seen before.''

So, given the success of That Bloody Woman last year, Hendry thought why couldn't the Fortune do it with a local rock or pop ''icon''.

''So we approached Shayne Carter. We've got two performers of great standing - they're sort of legends. The play is about legends and heroes. It feels a really good thing to be doing.

''They met each other, were really passionate about the story. It's the story of the Trojan War told in a very different, modern way.

''There will be some good to and fro. They'll be jamming together. Both are top performers.''

Michael Hurst saw the play as a ''marvellous'' opportunity to work with Shayne Carter. Photo:...
Michael Hurst saw the play as a ''marvellous'' opportunity to work with Shayne Carter. Photo: Gregor Richardson

The play also had a serious message about humanity's dangerous attraction to war.

Hurst (60), an Arts Laureate, was perfect for the play, Hendry said, having performed many Shakespeare roles over the years, as well as appearing in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, in which he played Hercules' sidekick Iolaus.

''He's something of a Greek theatre scholar and a born storyteller. It's the perfect combo.''

Carter (53) has been composing the score, in between writing a memoir from his home in Aramoana, while Hurst has been tucked up on Waiheke Island learning his lines as the man at the bar, telling the story of his life.

The approach from Hendry came at just the right time, Hurst said.

He had been directing a lot of television work, squeezing just one play in last year and was missing theatre work.

''I thought this sounds great and right up my alley. It's a big challenge - it's only me and Shayne and that's it. It's such a rare opportunity you get to do something like this.''

He saw the play as a ''marvellous'' opportunity to work with Carter.

''He's a creative an exciting person, and so am I. I'm excited to see where that will take us. We both agree we want to put some structure there for it, but there should also be the opportunity to be a bit more organic and see what happens.''

The story of the Iliad is one ingrained in Western culture - its themes of pride, honour, endless war, love, greed and jealousy are universal.

''It's a huge classic. It's so powerful and this version transforms it - it has been hailed as one of the best modern translations.''

To recite the Iliad would take about six days, so the writers had invented a character who has been telling this story ''forever and ever''.

''He selects the pieces he wants to tell you. It's all about overwhelming pride and the cost of that, the cost of war, the cost of self-interest.

''It's the poetry of it, the theatricality of it, it's storytelling ... at the end of the day that's what we tell in theatre, we tell a story.''

After spending a few days reading the script on Waiheke, Hurst could see it was ''beautifully constructed''.

''Good writing means easier recall. I want to hit the ground running. So here it is incredibly quiet, I can focus, mumble to myself and nobody looks at me funny.''

Theatre has always been Hurst's main passion and he enjoyed the agreement that audiences and actors entered into to pretend a performance was real.

''It's bigger for the performer as it's their job to maintain the illusion for as long as they can. When you make that bargain you are in for a rich experience.''

These days more of his time is spent behind a camera directing television shows such as Westside, 800 words and Spartacus.

''I'm really primed now to take some space for myself.''

The success of the public preview of Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense has prompted the Fortune to make it a regular event.

''People said they came for two reasons - because they got to see the show before it opened, a sneak peek if you like, but also because of the $20 tickets. It removed the financial barrier for them and making theatre accessible to our community is one of our key areas of focus this year. It's great to see this experiment worked so well.''

To see
An Iliad, Fortune Theatre, Saturday until April 21.
The public preview for An Iliad is tomorrow night.

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