Photo credit: Ste Murray
Funny things happen on the way to the Forum
Virgil’s ‘The Aeneid’ is a poetical myth maker, the myth being that of Aeneas and his building of the Roman Empire out of the ashes of Troy. On the way he meets, loves and abandons Dido, queen of Carthage, who dies in despair. One trip to hell to speak with his father and Dido later, followed by a battle or two, and viola, Rome. Collapsing Horse honour most of the above in their reimagining of 'The Aeneid,' but cleverly package it as a story within a story. A story about Aenin, a young Roman tasked with the job of producing this year’s translation of ‘The Aeneid.’ Oracle like, being the voice of Aeneas, she must honour the story and its tradition. Tedd has a few minor issues with her lack of precision when it comes to detail, Cato struggles to get her vegetarian diet just right, and Honcho is determined to show faith in her no matter what. Up to a point of course. But Diane is proving to be a real problem, as her budding relationship with Aenin is making Aenin rethink things. Shouldn’t Aeneas stay with the woman he loves and abandon Rome? Can she tell, and end, their story differently?
This last question haunts Collapsing Horse’s problematic take on ‘The Aeneid’ which, though fun and clever, gets lost in its own sense of gravitas and an apparent lack of basic theatrical know-how. This despite some of the cleverest, theatrical virtuosity on display anywhere, as if they can do the really clever stuff, but not the basics. Built from a basis of improvisation, director Dan Colley claims the final result was manipulated by him into something that looks planned and scripted. Something to make the old new and provoke questions about now. ‘The Aeneid’ certainly does make the old look new, as well as accessible, and does indeed provoke questions about now. But the questions it provokes, and their apparent fatalistic answers, might not be those the director intended. Nor does ‘The Aeneid’ look anything like planned and scripted. Indeed, the whole has the feel of an end of year student production put on for a giggle, just so the cast can run riot and have a good laugh, and hopefully the audience will too.
While Collapsing Horse’s ‘The Aeneid’ delivers well on laughs and inventiveness, it also leaves a feeling of frustration, for with a little tightening up this could well have been one of the standout comedy shows of the festival. But silly things undermine it, like inconsistent lighting with house lights seeming to turn on and off on a whim, poor quality vocals, as if the cast are struggling to adapt to the size of the venue. A situation not helped by them masking one another with frightening regularity, and having to struggle to be heard over Tom Lane and Danny Forde’s overwhelming soundtrack. The end result is if you're seated near the stage within earshot you get to laugh out loud. Everyone else gets to smirk and smile. Which is why the physical dimensions of ‘The Aeneid’ are often the most successful, with its use of paper and puppets, masks and Jenga-like blocks being enjoyed by all. As are the excellent performances by John Doran as Tedd, Manus Halligan as Cato, Karl Quinn as Honcho, Aoife Leonard as Diana and Maeve O’Mahony as Aenin. Operating like the well honed improv troupe they are, this excellent comic cast is often funniest when steering away from Virgil’s original and into their own universe, showing impeccable comic timing, when you can hear it.
A quick spoiler alert, jump to the next paragraph if you don't want to know how it ends. Unlike Aeneas who returns from hell, Collapsing Horse never quite make it back, with their descent lasting far too long and delivering a less than satisfactory ending. Aenin and Diane’s desire for a matriarchy vegetarian society, where boys don't talk over women and love is all around, turns out to be a pie in the sky as the play's attempt to reimagine the possible concedes defeat. In the end Collapsing Horse's ‘The Aeneid’ chooses to have no choice, seeming to be fatalistically damned to retell the same story. Suggesting that all you can really do is give in, be resigned to doing what's expected, what society, tradition and responsibility demand. Doomed to follow the demands of destiny, be that in creating empires or retelling stories, no matter what the personal cost. Really? Even Virgil wasn’t that hopeless. Aeneas at least had the chance to have both Rome and Dido, if only he didn't look back. Maybe this is how Collapsing Horse want their 'The Aeneid' to end, but its gravitas doesn't tally with all that's gone before.
Collapsing Horse’s, ‘The Aeneid’ has all the fun, frolics and focus of Rag Week. But it lacks that central cohesion which Colley should provide, rather than letting his cast and script run riot. Were that to be addressed, ‘The Aeneid’ could well be something exceptional indeed.
Despite the massacre of countless sacrificial animals, no actual animals were slaughtered in the making of ‘The Aeneid.’
‘The Aeneid’ by Collapsing Horse runs at Smock Alley Theatre as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe until September 24th
For more information, visit Smock Alley Theatre or Tiger Dublin Fringe