Hercules was a hero and a good man. Classical myth tells of his 12 heroic labours of slaying, stealing and capturing. This is the good and strong Hercules of comic books and super-hero stories made for television.
Hercules also murdered his first wife and his children, which was written about in an all-but-forgotten play by Euripides. But the story of “a good man” endures.
The Daniel Schlusser Ensemble’s Hercules isn’t about Hercules. It isn’t about a hero or a man. It’s about violence, fear and survival. And it’s about women.
It’s set in a cute and tidy kindergarten or childcare room and the design initially feels like a quaint country town hall stage. The ceiling is painted like the sky. There are plastic dinosaurs, a wooden rainbow, toy shelves, art works and little chairs. And a row of little knapsacks; we don’t know where the children are or why they left their bags.
Three middle aged woman – Mary-Helen Sassman, Katherine Tonkin and Edwina Wren – come into this room. Maybe they have children; they know the room. They are dressed in clothes that they could run in and they don’t care how they look.
While their conversations about cleaners and toxic paint are so realistic that they sound like they were overheard, their stories, and their labours, are hidden.
But they are scared. Possibly terrified.
They talk but don’t say what they mean. Which leaves it to the audience to imagine what’s happened, happening or about to happen. And our imaginations can be more vivid and dark than anything performed on a stage.
The remarkable design – Romanie Harper and Bethany J Fellows (set and costume) and Amelia Lever-Davidson (lighting) and James Paul (sound) – feed our imaginations.
There’s a huge world outside of the room. It’s seen through windows and doors. It feels dark, violent and overwhelming. The boxed-in safety of the kindergarten room begins to feel flimsy and unsafe.
The script has been developed by the cast and director over recent years and the Melbourne lockdowns have had a significant impact on it. They began with the idea of Euripides’s ignored play and of the violence of the good man, and they explored their own experiences of being parents to boys.
While they are clearly characters in a fictional world, there are stories and experiences that feel so close to the creators that it’s hard to imagine that they aren’t real.
Which all makes Hercules sound like a very intense evening in the theatre. It is. But it’s also unexpectedly hilarious. There’s space to laugh and feel safe; it could be unbearable otherwise.
Knowing classical myths and some Jung will help with identifying references – like a rocking horse Mare of Diomedes – but it isn’t about knowing the sources. Not knowing might even make it easier to understand because it will be a personal interpretation.
This is extraordinary theatre that leaves you raw. Its impact is felt more than it’s understood, but its story is clear because feeling emotions is how we understand our lives. We feel more than we think. The arrival of a giant topiary dinosaur might seem ridiculous, but its absurdity feels obvious and natural.
Hercules isn’t about a man; it’s about strength and about whatever you need to survive the actions of good men.
Arts House – North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne
Performance: Tuesday 24 May 2022
Season: 24 – 28 May 2022
Image: Edwina Wren, Mary-Helen Sassman and Katherine Tonkin in Hercules – photo by Pier Carthew
Review: Anne-Marie Peard