Review: Hercules – Arts House (VIC)

Reviewed by Martha Latham

There are two Hercules in modern canon. The Hercules who overcomes 12 incredible labors, a proto-superman who has come to be synonymous with strength, power and heroism. Then there is the Hercules who murdered his wife and children in a fit of madness, a madness he blames on the gods and spends the rest of his life seeking redemption. Hercules by the Daniel Schlusster Ensemble (DSE) is a play about these men and their use to us.

The play begins with an act of heroism. A teacher arrives to find a student has pissed themselves in the classroom. They begin delicately cleaning the space, the clothes and the mind of this child with soap, towels and a story, respectively. The story is one of duty, of a mother so caring that her final request before being bricked into a wall is that she may be allowed a single boob to poke out so she may still feed her child. The student asks “should there not be another hole, so she can hold her babe?”.

Genuinely challenging, complicated and nuanced theater with real money behind it can be hard to find and DSE has done the impossible to not only make such a work, but make it affordable, accessible and fun.

It’s an odd moment to be sure but one that immediately sets a tone for the work and leaves the audience reeling with questions. How would the Hercules we know have responded in that moment, when faced with a challenge that couldn’t be beaten by a club or an arrow? The violence that Hercules perpetrates against his enemies, his family and the mythical beasts of legend serve no value here in a kindergarten so… is that what DSE is seeking to tell us?

Of course, the meaning of this moment is deliberately obtuse. Hercules seeks not to answer questions but to ask them and as an audience member you take from the play what you bring to it. As a mother of two rabbits I went home and made sure I spent some time playing with them, rather than simply filling their water bowl and throwing them some leafy-greens. I felt guilty as I pondered that these creatures need more than simple nourishment. I felt I had been gifted an understanding of duty, heroism and purpose far deeper than if I had seen a muscle-bound, Conan-type figure strangle a lion. 

The work is packed with moments like these. Dense sections of theater, full of symbolism that encourage audience members to share in the act of meaning making. Generally my criticism of post-dramatic works is that they’re elitist. They alienate audience members who don’t know the original text and like the worst kind of Marvel movie, attendees are expected to have done homework in order to get the fullest experience of the play. While that still stands true for Hercules, I attended with a friend who turned to me at the end and said “I didn’t know theater could do that?!”. This is what makes Hercules a thirteenth labor of its own. Genuinely challenging, complicated and nuanced theater with real money behind it can be hard to find and DSE has done the impossible to not only make such a work, but make it affordable, accessible and fun.

Whether you’re a seasoned theater-goer or a novice looking to broaden your horizons, Hercules is something brand new for Australia and hopefully the precursor to more. Just make sure you read the wikipedia page in the lobby beforehand.

Review Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hercules by Daniel Schlusser Ensemble, haunted by Euripides played at the Arts House in North Melbourne Town Hall from 24th – 28th May.


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