Holding Achilles ★★

Written by David Morton. Sydney Festival. Carriageworks. 19-22 Jan, 2023.

High flying multidisciplinary show Holding Achilles comes to Sydney Festival after a successful run at Brisbane Festival last year and it’s a real mixed bag. But there’s one thing for certain… The acrobatics are graceful but the script is clunky!

Young, troubled, too-smart-for-his-own-good Patroclus is sent away to live with Peleus’ family where he meets the cocky Achilles. It’s typical hate-at-first-sight between them. But when Patroclus helps Achilles out of a sticky situation they are sent out together to find and train with the Centaur Chiron. At this point they fall in love. We know this because we are told this explicitly in the script. You’d never have guessed otherwise. 

But you can’t frolic in the woods forever, and when Patroclus and Achilles return home they discover that the pesky Trojans have kidnapped Helen and thanks to a big “a-ha” moment Patroclus has no choice but to go fight to bring her back with the rest of the army. Achilles joins him to keep him safe, and also become a hero, but mainly to keep him safe, honest. Patroclus hates the war because he hates war except when he has to fight a war to help people who they are actually at war with… look he’s a flighty young thing and changes his mind a lot while giving whiny speech after whiny speech.

This script is, as I mentioned, pretty basic. Lacking in emotion or subtext, it’s a kids’ pantomime without the charm to appeal to anything broader than the most basic of minds. Didactic in the extreme, and delivered like, well I guess they’re going for a “traditional Greek theatre” vibe by half shouting every line and telegraphing every move to the rafters? Or it’s just directed that way, I’m not sure TBH. ¯\_ (ツ)_/¯

The real star of the show is the puppetry by Dead Puppet Society (a pair of gorgeous bear puppets manage to elicit more genuine emotion than any melodramatic human on stage). Second billing goes to the physical theatre work which, when it’s great, feels fresh and inventive, and when it’s not-being-great is the relatively average “look they’re swimming in the air” that we’ve seen in plenty of other shows. But the training “montage” with Patroclus and Achilles is particularly beautiful, and Chiron is well realised – but then who doesn’t love a philosophical, non-binary, warrior centaur amiright? 

But two great moments don’t make a show and there is a lot of “moving around to fill the time” going on. The fight scenes feel slow, bloated and imprecise (the nature of the stage fighting reduces everything to “slow-motion” moments), and much of the other “movement work” is sloppy. It’s the difference between an actor moving between point A and point B holding a pose versus a dancer moving with intention. 

Oh, and I forgot to mention there’s a singer as well. She wanders on and off the stage at various points. Maybe she was the spirit of Achilles’ mother? Beautiful voice. I couldn’t really catch the lyrics but blame the acoustics of the cavernous Bay 17 at Carriageworks, I guess? I’ve no clue what she was doing there, it’s not like they needed to entertain us during a set change…

Holding Achilles felt like a dress rehearsal, a walk-through, before everyone gave it their all for the real audience. Visually stunning at times, it can’t shrug off the childish script and overly long running time. But then again, Stephen Madsen has a rockin’ bod and uses it to great effect with all that aerial work.



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