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Herakles! ReviewBritain is becoming increasingly secular. Last year, a ComRes poll showed that the number of people identifying as atheist has risen from 14% in 1963 to 42%, with 54% of those surveyed saying they would visit a Church of England building for historical or architectural reasons rather than spiritual ones. Nevertheless, there is still a certain level of social conditioning that should be understood or at least addressed by those setting a performance in a church, and this is one of many areas where Herakles! is distinctly problematic.

Described in what is more manifesto or mini-thesis than programme as ‘experimental music-Theatre’ inspired by, among others, Kabuki theatre, Broadway, Mummers, the myth of Hercules and fellow demi-god (no, really) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Neil Luck’s Herakles! is most engaging as the theatrical equivalent of theoretical quantum physics, seemingly designed to bamboozle. However, there is a gaping chasm between this deluge of ideas and the jarringly surrealist execution, which left its audience alternately floored, detached and mildly hysterical.

What I could never quite figure out was whether this was intended, or whether we were meant to reach a moment of eureka where this inexplicable juxtaposition of modernist music, unintelligible readings, escalating sound effects, earnestly symbolic film clips and the smoke monster from Lost pointed towards some larger truth, and/or an alternative reading of the labours of Hercules. Frankly, either would have been welcomed.

Film clips aside, this also had far more impact as soundscape than visual theatre, which made its staging particularly alienating. If we are arrayed in pews, looking up towards the altar, there is a part of us expecting to witness something miraculous, or at the very least engaging. Herakles! might be more at home as a installation piece, allowing people to interpret and absorb at their own pace, rather than setting up the expectation of a more traditional performance.

I believe it was well performed by ARCO, the company of musicians/performers, although it’s really hard to gauge, given that the aesthetic and creative aims remained elusive. Should the stream of animal noises emitting from the pulpit be evocative, or narrative, or just mildly hilarious? Were we meant to be able to hear and perhaps even understand some of the recited texts (contemporary or recent speeches I think) and be able to connect them to Hercules, or was the garbled sound precisely measured to leave comprehension tantalisingly out of reach?

Experimental, challenging work is a key part of our theatrical tradition and should never be dismissed, but an audience will find it difficult to have any sort of primary experience or fully invest in a piece without the suggestion that their commitment will eventually have a pay-off, if not intellectual then at least emotional. Given our venue, I kept the faith as long as I could, but Herakles!, really performed inward rather than outward, reserved that satisfaction for its better-informed company than for us.

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Reviewed 10/05/13/

By Marianka Swain

10th May 2013
The Actors’ Church, London, WC2.

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