Love takes flight in queer take on classic
A new Australian theatrical production set against the violent backdrop of the Trojan War has taken sides in a debate that has been going on for millennia.
Were Achilles and Patroclus lovers or just good friends?
Local director David Morton Holding Achilles’ new show, currently staged at the Brisbane Festival, addresses the issue in a play that deals with the Iliad, the ancient Greek poem set towards the end of the war.
Morton views Achilles and Patroclus as two of the most recognized and contested queer characters in Western literature and admits that the production took “a lot of liberties” to tell their story through the prism of Australian post-marital equality. .
“It seems to be such a ripe ground for the development of new stories and new material within existing myths,” he told AAP.
The Iliad tells the story of Achilles’ feud with King Agamemnon and how he sulked on the beaches of Troy and refused to fight until Patroclus was killed in his stead. Achilles vows to avenge his death, but in doing so causes his own death.
Featuring car-sized grizzly puppets, aerial abilities and a live soundtrack from Eurovision competitor Montaigne, the Morton Dead Puppet Society production house offers a new take on the Trojan War through its first-ever collaboration with the Sydney physical theater company, Legs On The Wall.
However, his reading of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is actually less radical than it seems because it adds to an interpretative tradition that dates back to Plato.
In the Plato Symposium – something of an old dinner discussion – Phaedrus argues that Achilles and Patroclus were a couple, while in the Xenophon Symposium Socrates argues that they were not.
It is no exaggeration to say that this debate has been going on for centuries.
In the Hollywood movie Troy – the 2004 version with Brad Pitt (which one reviewer noted was “camp like a line of tents pitched on the beaches”) – the two were, well, cousins.
However, the Iliad – the 8th-century BC text attributed to Homer – offers no evidence that the fighters were also lovers, according to Australian National University Professor Emeritus Elizabeth Minchin, who has been studying the classics since the 1970s.
“The poem of the Iliad gives you absolutely no idea that this was the case, but the stories make you imagine other situations,” he told AAP.
For Professor Minchin, Holding Achilles is another example of storytellers who harness the authority of ancient tales to examine problems and relationships in their own societies.
“The stories are so compelling, the characters are so vivid that once they have settled into your imagination, it’s very easy to work with them in new contexts,” he said.
Morton himself was inspired by Madeleine Miller’s bestselling love story Song of Achilles, which won the Orange Prize in 2012, and Pat Barker’s feminist fiction in 2018 The Silence of Girls.
During the first readings of the screenplay of Tenendo Achille he realized that he could create an almost utopian theatrical world in which the romantic love between Patroclus and Achilles was undisputed and therefore reduced to a basic fact.
“They are just in love and everyone accepts that it is the relationship and the struggles that they are going through, and the driving force of the drama is not around them struggling with who they are, it is around them that they have human struggles about how to interact with the world. “, he said.
Morton’s decision to leave identity politics aside was in part a response to recent narratives centered around gay people suffering from their sexuality.
According to Morton, this choice is the one he’s most proud of in the new series.
“I’m really excited about this,” he said.
“People can come and see this story, especially young people who might find out who they are and see this totally normalized relationship.”
Holding Achilles previews are currently airing at QPAC’s Playhouse and the show will run until 10 September.