The programme notes call it “a timely revival”. What it is sure is that to see a restaging of such an iconic piece as Enter Achilles is precious and we have to thank Rambert’s co-production with Sadler’s Wells for making this possible. Originally created in 1995 by Lloyd Newson for his company, DV8, the production has been updated with current political issues still maintaining the social and cultural enquiry at its core. Nothing or very little has changed and the portrayal of a certain type of masculinity is, unfortunately, still relevant a quarter of a century later.

<i>Enter Achilles</i> © Miguel Altunaga
Enter Achilles
© Miguel Altunaga

Suspended mid-air, side-lit as in chiaroscuro by Caravaggio, a group of men in t-shirts and blue jeans is cheering their team. They take their t-shirts off and with their gleaming topless chests compose in slow motion tableaux of hooligans’ behaviour. After a quick blackout, the second prologue: we see a couple fumbling under a duvet. A young man is tenderly entraining a robber doll as another (real) date calls to be redirected on the answering machine. No other womanly presence is allowed in the space, the interior of a pub. A group of seven men enters, each of them getting an almost empty pint as a greeting gesture. The dance has a faint narration that can be followed. They watch TV (a nationalist political debate and a soccer game), play, dart and dance to some oldies music blasted by a jukebox nearby. The glasses are juggled around as they lift the other men or jump parkour-like in and out windows or bar counters, up and down the scenography. As a homosexual man enters, his feminine moves catch everyone’s attention feeding the latent aggression. As animals sniffing their prey, they pounce on him and he, with dervish turns, defends himself, transforming at the same time into superman. The evening goes on with boorish behaviour, gross homophobic pranks, and sexist jokes and heavy drinking, some time addressed directly the audience as with the nationalist tirade. Some struggle to keep macho façade, fearing the violence of retaliation if they fail. Everything crumbles when the doll is discovered. As Penthesilea, the Amazonian queen, is stabbed to death, her grieving man literally hangs on the abyss as part of the stage lifts to form a mountain to which he is hanging with his bare hands.

<i>Enter Achilles</i> © Miguel Altunaga
Enter Achilles
© Miguel Altunaga

Superficially part of a group, what struck, is the characters’ loneliness and their lack of normal interaction; the only tender relation is with a plastic doll or the careful handing of the glasses. The other men are manipulated as butts for pranks to (re)affirm one’s male identity or bodily bases that allow for acrobatic stunts or jumps. The movement material is splendidly simple, pedestrian movements such as walking or drinking a beer complicated by dazzling partnering sequences and elegantly simple group sequences (with a pint in one hand of course) in counterpoint to the music. A portrayal of a certain social class, the working class, the men are powerlessly stuck into one habitus, displaying, on the one hand, the macho behaviour that is required of them, and at the same time suppressing their own passions such as for example preferring the ‘effeminate’ Irish dancing over the ‘masculine’ soccer. This absurd façade does not allow them to address the genuine tragedy of their existences epitomised by the doll’s broken heart lover. The struggle of keeping one’s identity in the face of the ‘vigilantes’ is real and the trespassing into ‘feminine’ behaviour violently sanctioned when discovered. The superman figure introduces some levity, as when he is hung from his feet only of a wall or as he assaults in self-defence a man with shaving cream, but also adds a touch of melancholy, as when he provides, while hanging as a rope artists, one of the man with a swing. This solitary dreamy state can become a hard wake up call if discovered by the pack as when some men are sadistically assaulted because in their drunkenness they have started a kind of homoerotic dance spurred by some disco music and the feminine moves of the superman character (in disguise). 

Violent, witty and tactlessly inappropriate, but appropriated for the matter, Enter Achilles has entered the collective imaginary – in the UK, it is even taught at GCSE levels – or rather has moved a certain type of collectivity from a blind spot to centre stage. The film adaptation, that won the Emmy Award in 1997, made it readily available but there is nothing like seeing the performance of these eight men and their (fake) blood, sweat and beer (sloshes) live. If some things have not changed, some others have grown instead, as the nationalist sentiment of some that brought to Brexit.

*****