ILIAD by National Theatre Wales

or How I learned to stop worrying and love the reading

Sam Ruddock reflects on ILIAD by National Theatre Wales in association with Ffwrnes, and questions how we work with readings at literature events.

‘In the beginning, there was no beginning. And in the end, no end.’

I admit it: I had lost faith in the literature event. 

You’ll probably recognise the experience of coming out of one to the accompaniment of that familiar audience refrain: ‘I liked the author but I couldn’t get into the reading; it went on too long and I just tuned out.’ If I am honest, I have often felt the same.

Do audiences prefer talking about a book than an effort to step into the book itself live? Is it better to offer an introduction to an experience and leave the audience to go home and read the book in their own time and as they want to? Can the immersion of reading be replicated live? Should we try? If so, how might we do it engagingly? If not, why do we persist with readings at events? These were questions I've discussed with other producers frequently, without finding many good answers.

It took a theatre company to show me that the reading need not be the teeth-grinding bit we get through to get to the writer, but the entire event itself. That a reading, performed well, and committed to boldly by the producers, could be absolutely enough; a transcendent and momentous experience. A direct and satisfying engagement with everything that quiet reading can also be.

National Theatre Wales’ Production of ILIAD took Christopher Logue’s War Music, his magnum opus translation of Homer’s Iliad, and created a performed, staged, multi-media live reading of it.  Presented over four parts each lasting roughly two hours, I saw them back to back one night in autumn 2015. 8 hours of a reading... And it changed the way I think about the live reading forever.

Everything about the production sung out the joy of engaging with stunningly crafted poetry.

ILIAD elevated the reading of Logue’s words to some sort of divine status (and not just because the text scrolled line by line by glorious line across the same screens around the auditorium as the gods - Zeus, Apollo, Hera, Athene – appeared on to speak their lines). Directors Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes placed the text at the centre of everything about the production; all multimedia stop-motion films, dramaturgy and staging, sound design and lighting served to accentuate the audience’s focus on the words and the epic story of war, bravery, passion, betrayal, and courage.

The set was made of white plastic chairs and tyres, planks of MDF, and a huge screen showing stop-motion landscapes that blended Welsh hills and coasts with Troy. There was a crunching soundscape like the marching of boots. The stage was torn apart and reconstructed throughout the play. Yet never to the distraction from the words. The production was akin to those scribbles in the margins of a book that open up other interpretations of the text, expand the experience of reading it. All came together to create an experience that gets as close as I’ve seen to the imaginative immersion of reading a great work like War Music.

Everything about the production sung out the joy of engaging with stunningly crafted poetry. I wasn’t the only one blown away by the glorious life given to Logue’s words.

‘so much here leaves you breathless…certainly the theatrical event of the year. It may be the theatrical event of the decade.’ The Guardian

‘feels, at times, like you are inside an audiobook. Iliad is a triumph.’ The Arts Desk

‘colossal… completely captivating…an experience we will return to, chew over, talk about for a long time to come.’ Exeunt magazine

ILIAD taught me three vital lessons. (Admittedly, these are lessons that producers such as Jaybird, Penned in the Margins, Speaking Volumes and others have known and been operating with for a while. But I can be quite slow.) I’ve tried to build them into events I’ve produced since, most notably The Story Machine which featured nothing but readings – 18 short stories and works of poetry to engage with over a three-hour show. And they are lessons I see at the heart of other shows, too.

  1. Readings can be difficult. Accept it. Not every event need have a reading. Indeed, many may be better off without. There is great value in the event based on a conversation about someone’s life, their creative process, their thoughts and experiences, challenges and angers. That biographical engagement with another human being is a powerful drive for many audiences, and authors are frequently interesting people. So are non-authors, too – if you are driven to create events around building empathy and understanding between people, you need not limit yourself to authors.
  2. If you do want a reading, commit to it. It isn’t enough to lug a lectern onto the stage and point a spotlight at it. That’s lazy event production. As with teaching, you cannot expect that everyone processes information aurally, or that a single medium approach is going to work for all. If you want to create engagement with a reading, production is imperative. Like doodling during a meeting, set design, lighting, movement, visuals can all these help audiences focus on the words. Can elevate a reading from a bit-part in an event to something worth actively engaging with. Sure, this makes things more expensive and time-consuming, but surely the artistic value is worth it? It can help authors feel more comfortable, too: authors in The Story Machine fed back that by focusing on the story rather than author and by not putting them alone on an empty stage, readings felt more intimate and less scary. And where audience attention spans rarely extend beyond 5 minutes, they listened intently and engagingly for 25 minutes without problem.
  3. Narrative completion is key. Nothing is better than engaging with a story in its whole, a piece that takes you through beginning, middle and end. Can a reading that is an extract of just the beginning ever be wholly satisfying? Question whether the novel as a form suits an extracted reading. Is there a section that works as a narrative arc in itself and feels satisfying upon reaching the stopping place? Short stories and poetry may be better suited to reading live because they allow you to bite off an entire narrative at once. The epic durational reading – see ILIAD, Moby Dick Live, etc – works for this reason, too.

Readings are the most direct link between the art of literature and the live event. Done well, they can be stunning. We owe it to our literature to make this the case. 

The challenge is set, stages should be set; lets not let dull readings kill the experience of engaging with literature, live. 

National Theatre Wales has a history of engagement with literature, most recently in co-producing Roald Dahl’s City of the Unexpected with Wales Millennium Centre, a magical celebration of the spirit of Roald Dahl, created on the streets of the city that made him. See more about National Theatre Wales here, and about City of the Unexpected here.

All production images coutesy of Farrows Creative / National Theatre Wales