Ben Speth: Iliads



From Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe:

To penetrate [The Iliad’s] inherent greatness, you need to bring with you all of the successive versions, adaptations, and accommodations. Nothing is more ordinary than this mechanism.


Ben Speth launches an epic performance event combining seven different translation’s of the Iliad in a marathon reading of  chapters one to four by a team of ten contemporary dance artists. Sources for this live art Iliadic cento-slam range from Chapman (1615) to Buckley (1851) to Fagles (1990). When we enter the space, we see the actual texts piled on a table, a tall stack of books. The books are later distributed among the performers. The sequence of the readings – each performer reads somewhere between five and twenty lines at a time – is fixed by Speth. And during the reading of each of the four chapters there’s a different structure for interprative movement improvisations. Between each chapter there’s a short break, with plenty of food, wine and beer.


This performance can only be about isolated moments, accidental beauties and insights revealed fleetingly amid the sprawl of baffled and baffling improvisation. So the first moment. What is the theatre of war? A loft on Moreland Street in Footscray. Afternoon. Midsummer. A very mild midsummer. The sun is setting. The loft is light and spacious, with one large window open to the outside. It takes roughly one hour to read each book of the Iliad aloud. And each book is supposed to represent roughly one day of the siege of Troy. Across the first hour, as the Greeks argue (WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING?), the colours of the evening shift and fall, from white birds to, per Christopher Logue’s adaptation of the poem–


The colours lingers in the loft, it being so open and so spacious. It is Simone Weil who calls Homer as “impartial as sunlight”. And the body of the air is white and silver.


The muse mingles good and evil in her gifts. These are dancers in a circle bound:

Danced there Athame, danced, and there Phrethusa
With colour In the vein,
Strong as with blood-drink, once,
With colour in the vein…

But none of them is aoidos, none of them has the gift of sweet song. Swift-footed, yes, but dull of tongue. It sounds truly horrible – lungs without breath and cracked throats. They read as though they’ve all eternity to waste.

This is not war as a machinic force which mangles the bodies of men and women; it is dance as a machinic force which mangles text, stripping it of poetry and reducing it to muttered nothings and muted cries.


The second moment. During the reading of chapter two, fairy lights are used to describe a large circular performance area. Eight cast members sit in a long row in the open-plan kitchen, outside the circle. As before, they take it in turns to read short passages from the various books. Meanwhile, one performer improvises inside the circle while another plays silent provocateur on the sidelines. Through the course of the reading, these roles are rotated, while the cast also eat and use the bathroom as they need.

Philipa Rothfield is last to enter into the ring. By this time it’s dark outside, and the heaped yellow lights that form the edge of the ring glow like a sort of soft mystery, like …

the ringed horizon. In that ring Cain struck Abel. Sweet work, right work!

She dances with her eyes closed, her chin up, arms raised above her head, hips slowly jinking and jiving. During the final section of the chapter, the readings begin to overlap, getting louder and louder. This seems to me to be an accurate rendering of the mental effect of first reading chapter two of the Iliad, especially the latter part, the so-called catalogue of ships, which lists the ships and ships’ captains in the Greek fleet. It’s a babble of ancient names and ancient places. Here, the reading culminates with all eight voices shouting their parts at once, a torrent of words, indistinguishable, pouring out of the bright kitchen into the half-lit performance space. Rothfield dances as though under a waterfall. The grinning rhetors lean forward in their seats, hurling the sound; but the single body resists, cool and easy. She doesn’t seem to notice when they finish: she just keeps dancing.


A corpse Iliad. Le corps du danseur. Or Corpsing: slang for breaking character by laughing. Here, amid the carnage of Achaeans and Trojans, there was corpsing all the way through. In book four, Amarinceus’ son Diores is struck on the ankle by a rock thrown by the Thracian Pirous, crushing the bones and tendons to a pulp. Natalie Abbott falls flat on her back, arms flung out to her comrades, gasping with laughter.


In the massing and re-massing of bodies across the four movements this Iliad is mostly laconic and smiling. This version of the Iliad is not about war. The dancers are playful, uncertain about what they should be doing, but optimistic, hopeful, eager. Simone Weil says of the Achaeans before they reach the Troad shore –

At the outset, at the embarkation, their hearts are light, as hearts always are if you have a large force on your side and nothing but space to oppose you.

It is the same for these dancers – and perhaps all dancers: only space opposes them.


Weil calls the Iliad a “poem of force”. Laban calls dance a “poem of effort”. Here, effort is everything: they are eager for exhaustion. Exhaustion seems to be the whole point. It’s not a question of combat, or of opposing forces, but of ritually sacrificing the body to the experience of waste.


Or was it that they were as Gods? Every loft is its own lofty Olympus. According to Rachel Bespaloff, the happy carelessness of the immortals is the one sin and only crime which Homer does not pardon. “I do not blame you,” says Priam to Helen. “I blame the Gods, who launched this Achaean war, full of tears, upon me.” For the Gods – as much as for the ten dancers and their audience – the Iliadic war is a comedy. This performance approaches divine insouciance? Or is it divine irresponsibility? As Bespaloff writes:

Where the free individual is not asserting himself against Fate, responsibility has nothing to grasp. Anger spills out in a burst of laughter that sanctions the triumph of incoherence.

Thus, on first opening Chapman’s Homer, Greg Zuccolo mutters in a frustrated aside:

“He’s a real pain in the hole, this guy.”

All night they all want to avoid Chapman, and to avoid the way, like a true Jacobean, Chapman manifests the struggle against necessity, in the tortured syntax and the obscure vocabulary.


When it was over it was over. It was over like war is over. Like a relief. There will always be more. Ben Speth plans, distantly, a performance of the other twenty chapters. A full twenty-four hour reading. And then beyond that, perhaps a Total Iliads. All the translations and adaptations: everything from Logue to Lombardo to David Malouf to Stephen Mitchell to Alice Oswald and even Simon Armitage. Perhaps there might be a Cosmic Iliads, something more than total? Hundreds of performers all across Footscray: on every street corner someone reading a translation of Trojan Women. Great snaking processions of unprofessional reciters reading Virgil and Racine and Shakespeare, Berlioz’s libretto and all the rest of the so-called scraps from Homer’s banquet, the thousand imitations launched in the wake of Achilles’ famous rage?

Latour and Lowe, again:

If the songs of the Iliad had remained stuck in one little village of Asia Minor, Homer would not be considered a (collective) author of such great originality. It is because and not in spite of the thousands and thousands of repetitions and variations of the songs that we are moved so much by the unlimited fecundity of the original.

Iliads, Thursday 12 February 2015, Ben Speth, 36 Moreland St. Footscray, upstairs loft.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: