A new Australian theatre production set against the violent background of the Trojan War has taken sides in a debate that’s been going on for millennia.
Were Achilles and Patroclus lovers, or just good friends?
Local director David Morton’s new show, Holding Achilles, now playing at the Brisbane Festival, addresses the issue in a work that takes on the Iliad – the ancient Greek poem set near the end of the war.
Morton sees Achilles and Patroclus as two of the most widely recognised and hotly contested queer characters in western literature and admits the production took “a lot of liberties”, to tell their story through the lens of post-marriage equality Australia.
“It feels like it’s such a ripe ground for the development of new story and material within the existing myth,” he told AAP.
The Iliad tells the story of Achilles’ quarrel with King Agamemnon and how he sulked on the beaches of Troy and refused to fight until Patroclus was killed in his place. Achilles vows to avenge his death, but in doing so brings about his own demise.
With grizzly bear puppets the size of cars, aerial feats, and a live music score from Eurovision contestant Montaigne, Morton’s production house Dead Puppet Society offers a fresh take on the Trojan War through its first-ever collaboration with Sydney physical theatre company, Legs On The Wall.
Yet its reading of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is actually less radical than it might appear because it adds to an interpretive tradition that stretches back to Plato.
In Plato’s Symposium – something of an ancient dinner party discussion – Phaedrus argues Achilles and Patroclus were in a relationship, while in Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates contends they weren’t.
It’s no exaggeration to say this debate has been going on for eons.
In the Hollywood movie Troy – the 2004 version starring Brad Pitt (which one reviewer observed was “camp as a row of tents pitched on the beaches”) – the pair were, well, cousins.
However, the Iliad – the circa 8th century BC text attributed to Homer – offers no evidence the fighters were also lovers, according to Australian National University Emeritus Professor Elizabeth Minchin, who has been studying classics since the 1970s.
“The poetry of the Iliad gives you absolutely no suggestion it was like that, but the stories allow you to imagine other situations,” she told AAP.
For Professor Minchin, Holding Achilles is another example of storytellers harnessing the authority of ancient narratives to look at issues and relationships in their own societies.
“The stories are so gripping, the characters are so vivid, that once they’ve fixed themselves in your imagination it’s very easy then to work with them in new contexts,” she said.
Morton himself was inspired by Madeleine Miller’s bestselling romance Song of Achilles, which won the 2012 Orange Prize, and Pat Barker’s 2018 feminist retelling of The Silence of the Girls.
He realised, during early readings of the Holding Achilles script, that he could create an almost utopian theatrical world in which the romantic love between Patroclus and Achilles was unquestioned and thereby reduced to a background fact.
“They are just in love, and everybody accepts that’s the relationship and the struggles they go through, and the drive of the drama is not around them struggling with who they are, it’s around them having human struggles with how to interact with the world,” he said.
Morton’s decision to leave identity politics to one side was partly a response to recent narratives focused on gay people suffering as a result of their sexuality.
According to Morton, this choice is the one he’s most proud of in the new show.
“I’m really excited about that,” he said.
“People can come and see this story, particularly younger people who might be working out who they are, and see this relationship just totally normalised.”
Previews for Holding Achilles are currently showing at QPAC’s Playhouse, and the show runs until September 10.