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The Iliad Out Loud: an epic comes to Canberra

Heather Wallace

Sing goddess of the rage of Archileus…which brought uncounted anguish…and hurled down to Hades many might souls of heroes, making their bodies the prey to dogs and the birds’ feasting…Sing from the time of the first quarrel…

No one knows exactly how old the opening lines of Homer’s The Iliad are, but as soon as they’re spoken out loud the listener is instantly transported to a time of gods and heroes.

I always love writing for HerCanberra but there are sometimes when I really, really, really love it. Speaking to playwright and actor William Zappa recently was one of those times, and I got my Ancient Greek geek on sharing his excitement about the epic production (in the truest sense) being staged at The Street.

Next to me as we chatted was the 27-year-old copy The Iliad that’s been with me for every move and major life event from university onwards. This edition is the only one William hasn’t come across in his quest to compare as many translated versions as possible to develop his own that will be performed over three days.

We probably all know the bare bones of the Trojan War, of Helen eloping with Paris and sparking a conflict that ends with a wooden horse hiding an invading army. The Iliad doesn’t try to tell the whole story, it picks up 10 years into an entrenched war that sees an amassed army of Greeks laying siege to the city state of Ilius (Troy). The almighty gods take sides according to their own petty rivalries and jealousies, and the Greek heroes are not immune to squabbling amongst themselves. Hold up in the city the Trojans try to snatch what normal life they can, all the while facing the ever-present threat before them.

Just as the final conflict seems set to deliver a decisive victory for the Greeks, in-fighting between the invincible Achilleus and King Agamemnon sees the former sulking in his tent, leaving a chance for Hector, leader of the Trojans, to rally his forces. Power, ambition, love, lust and honour are all at play.

“It’s the original of everything,” William enthuses in our conversation. “It’s the original of all sci-fi, superheroes and soap operas. It’s the first great story to be passed down and we owe it so much. And it really is like Days of Our Lives in parts.”

This is not a stage play, William has created a production to be read aloud just as it would have been thousands of years ago in both Greek market places and private parties. And like the original this is a version in verse, albeit in a modern, Australian voice. He describes how balancing the rhythm is important, sometimes the audiences can feel it at work and at others it sits in the background, simply supporting the story.

“I wanted to find a language with words we’re familiar with and react to without making it too colloquial. Although there’s a moment when one character refers to another as ‘a mongrel dog’, which is about as ocker as you can get.”

It’s an ambitious project, performing the entire text over three nights, but William says audiences can choose to come to just one night or all three. Audiences coming to just the second or third nights won’t miss out, there will be a ‘story so far’ catch up to bring everyone one up to speed.

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He is joined on stage by Nick Byrne and Chrissie Shaw, two Canberra-based performers who are adept at veering from laugh out loud comedy to tragedy and horror in a single moment. Nick was one of the versatile cast playing multiple characters at The Street’s Cold Light and Chrissie’s one-woman cabaret Bijou had her playing a once famed 19th century courtesan over the decades of her rise and fall. They are both adept at using voice and posture to create characters quickly, which will stand them in good stead alongside William as they bring to life a pantheon of gods and warring armies.

For all the dignity and pathos of the mortals facing death and destruction, there are strong comic elements as well.

“The gods are hysterical, Zeus is very, very funny, I LOVE being him,” Williams laughs. I tell him my favourite chapter is where the goddess Hera seduces Zeus from the fray to give the Greeks a chance to gain the upper hand. Overcome with renewed lust for his wife, Zeus chooses the unusual tactic of reciting all his recent conquests to his jealous wife. The mightiest of the gods is such a buffoon in that moment that it’s very, very funny—although I tell William, that as hilarious as I found it at 19, it was less so 20 years later when someone tried a similar technique. William says he’ll make sure that chapter is included just for me.

“It’s all loosely floating around my head, it’s not completely formed. I’ll have two weeks to work with Chrissie and Nick when I get to Canberra, exploring ways of speaking and working together.”

As well as the actors, Linda Buck lights the stage and percussionist Gary France from Groove Warehouse creates a landscape of sound. In total the production runs for nine hours over three nights, but don’t be alarmed, there are intervals for food, drink and ‘comfort breaks’.

The Iliad Out Loud is part of The Street’s commitment to pairing classic verse with live performance, and follows The Sonnets Out Loud from last year.

It’s a chance for Canberra audiences to be part of a tradition that started with ancient bards and poets and survives today.

the essentials

What: The Iliad Out Loud
Where: The Street Theatre, 15 Childers St, Canberra City West
When: 28 – 29 April from 7pm, Sunday 30 April from 4pm
Tickets: $35 – $40 Packages: 2 Sessions $60 – $70; 3 Sessions $75 – $90
Book now on: (02) 6247 1223 or at

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Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (, is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author