Plays of Love and War: This Flesh Is Mine / When Nobody Returns

Brian Woolland
Border Crossings and ASHTAR Theatre of Palestine
Theatre Bay at Acklam Village

Bayan Shibib and Andrew French (from When Nobody Returns) Credit: Border Crossings
Tariq Jorden and David Broughton-Davies (from When Nobody Returns) Credit: Border Crossings
Iman Aoun (from When Nobody Returns) Credit: Border Crossings

The politicians who lead their country into war prefer to speak only about the necessary victory. They say very little about the suffering that the war has inflicted and even less about the ways it may have distorted the lives of the victors and their families.

Brian Woolland's Plays of Love and War draws on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to explore in two approximately hundred-minute shows the impact of war touching on issues of grief, guilt, mythmaking and disenchantment.

The shows take place in a huge space beneath the Westway by Acklam Village Market. The spectacular set, designed by Will Hargreaves, resembles the devastation of a war zone. Two sides of what looks like a grey concrete road, broken and inclined downwards towards the middle, form a traverse playing area that provides three distinct performance spaces. Two raised platforms towards the back of the space are also used by the actors, adding to the impression of an audience sitting amidst the action.

This Flesh Is Mine set sometime during the Trojan War opens with an argument between Achilles (Andrew French) and Agamemnon (David Broughton-Davies), leader of the Greek military. It centres on Archilles’ unwillingness to fight and his anger with Agamemnon for taking away Briseis (Bayan Shibib), a Trojan woman whom Archilles had held captive.

We soon learn that many of the Greeks are having doubts about continuing the war, and even suspect that Helen, who is supposed to be the cause of the war, doesn’t really exist and is simply a cover for imperial ambitions.

Archilles’ doubts are also stoked by a meeting he has with the Trojan king Priam (Gerrard McArthur) and encouraged by Briseis, whom he clearly trusts more than many of those on his own side in the war. Well he might, because Agamemnon fears Archilles’ prestige and is looking for a way of diminishing that prestige.

The play has a very modern sensibility and much fine dialogue. Its contemporary relevance is emphasised in the second half by switching from the clothes and weapons we associate with Classical Greece to those of current use.

When Nobody Returns takes us to the post war period of Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus is returning to his home on the Greek island of Ithaca.

It begins with Penelope (Iman Aoun) continuing to wait for the return of her husband Odysseus (Andrew French). She keeps at bay the suitors of an occupying force by insisting on completing a tapestry before she makes a choice. She is told her current life is risky. Distrusted by the occupation, she is placed under certain restrictions. In one scene, a police official even refuses to grant her a pass to walk the short distance to the sea.

This play with its uniforms that remind us of Israel is making a more pointed reference to the occupation of Palestine. Penelope, like many Palestinian women, has been forced into the life of a single mother while so many of the men in the community are imprisoned, dead or away fighting.

Much of the story concentrates on her twenty-year-old son Telemachus (Tariq Jorden), restless for action against the occupation and searching for news of his father. This leads him to the home of Menelaus (David Broughton-Davies) who tells him about the many supposed monsters Odysseus has had to face that have delayed his return. However, these are the drunken myths and half-truths of someone who maintained his power by ruthless dishonesty. But they will have consequences on the behaviour of the young listener desperate to make sense of his world.

When we see Odysseus waking from a troubled sleep in bed with Calypso (Bayan Shibib), we suspect the only monsters he has really had to face are the traumas of the war that continue to dominate his mind.

The cast give solid performances with David Broughton-Davies amusingly conjuring up a roguish, slightly threatening Menelaus and Andrew French being particularly effective at conveying psychological depth to Archilles.

There is nothing heroic about anyone in these plays. They are all in different ways caught up in a cycle of violence that damages everyone. There are moments, such as the gentle late evening conversation between Priam and Archilles, when we feel the possibility of that cycle being broken but it is a rare instant too easily overwhelmed by the dishonesty of leaders driving the world to war.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna