Preview: Funnier Than Virgil

Virgil’s Aeneid is one of the central works of European literature, and you may not know anyone who has read it.

Commissioned by the emperor Augustus to memorialise the birth of Rome and to adorn his own reign, the poem’s twelve books follow the hero Aeneas from the ruins of Troy to the war-torn shores of Italy. Aeneas fights tempests, mutiny, angry gods and the implacable march of his own destiny. It is a charmless masterpiece, but a vital one.

Irish responses began with a freewheeling translation in the 14th century. They continue with Seamus Heaney’s more sober translation of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld, published three years after his own death. From the 14th to the 24th of September this year, Dublin audiences can see that tradition furthered in an exuberant new theatrical adaptation by Collapsing Horse.

The play is set in an alternate Europe, where a band of strolling players keep the souls of the dead alive by channelling the voice of Aeneas himself. We join them as the central actor begins to rebel against this destiny, much as Aeneas himself attempted to fight his own fate.

It’s a clever device. The actors can flash through the poem’s thornier passages and linger on the moments of drama, while unpicking the imperial subtext of Virgil’s work. The multiplication of roles also lets the cast shine. Collapsing Horse are both funnier and more romantic than Virgil. Their Dido scenes remain tender even as they are dive-bombed by pratfalling imports from Plautus with names like Eroticus.

As a practising Latinist, I am used to the glazed eye. Nobody wants to hear about your subjunctives. But The Aeneid is a show I would recommend even to people who couldn’t care less about the source material. It’s funny, touching and richly inventive.

It is also quietly intelligent. Director Dan Colley is steeped in the poem, but he is also suspicious of its use of narrative as a cloak for political brutality. Virgil took the strands of existing classical literature and wove them into a garland for despots. Collapsing Horse tear that garland apart and make something beautiful from the shreds. It’s a profoundly Virgilian act. But, you know, funnier.

Kevin attended a rough showing of The Aeneid, by Collapsing Horse, and spoke to its director Dan Colley. The finished show runs in Smock Alley from 14 – 24 September as part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe. Booking is brisk, so secure your tickets here.