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Denis O'Hare: A Homer Run

After his riveting performance at D-CAF of An Iliad, a theatre adaptation of Homer's original tragic tale, Kurt Galalah sits down with Denis O'Hare of True Blood fame to talk war, foul, and Lady Gaga...

War came to Downtown Cairo last Sunday, but not with soldiers in the streets. It came theatrically, in the form of An Iliad, brought to the stage of Falaki Theatre by a single actor and the words of one of history's most celebrated poet. Emmy-nominated actor and Tony Award winner Denis O'Hare (American Horror Story, The Good Wife, The Normal Heart, and the gay king of Mississippi on True Blood) stole the show as he retold the story of the Trojan War, conjuring his own, flesh-and-blood version of the tale that Ancient Greek bard Homer spun the 10-year-struggle at Troy into a tale for the ages.

O’Hare appears on an unadorned stage and shares the tragic narrative he is fated to tell for eternity. He is passionate, present, extraordinary. The epic text he’s co-authored with his director, Lisa Peterson, brings humour, pathos, and excitement to the ancient tale of the Trojan War, colliding it with the contemporary world and creating a wholly captivating theatrical experience. In one mesmerising scene, O’Hare numbly but relentlessly recites the names of war after war after war, scores of them, underscoring how violent humans are and how our history has been defined by our attempts to kill one another. It makes you sad, but also think whether we have really evolved as human beings. As the play ended, everyone got up from their seats and gave O'Hare a 4-minute standing ovation. An Iliad doesn't demand to just be seen, but experienced.

The next morning, it's not Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon or Priam I meet, but Denis O'Hare himself and director Lisa Peterson.

What's the difference between Homer's Iliad and your adaptation of it?

Peterson: When most people study Homer's version, they study it as classic literature. It’s an epic. It’s very long and it has hundreds of characters in it. With ours, we decided we wanted to create the experience of hearing an ancient story teller. Homer might not have been one person. Homer was probably many people who told the story to each other over and over again.

O'Hare: We wanted to have the audience get the experience of 3000 years ago. Like, you’re sitting at some local coffee shop or pub and a guy just comes in and he goes, “Who wants to hear the story of the Trojan War?” 

I've noticed that you've made it very easy to understand and relate to…

Peterson: And that was exactly the point and why we made Denis speak in a very contemporary American vernacular and use a lot of contemporary similes and metaphors.

O'Hare: Like there’s this scene where I list the towns where every soldier comes from. It’s a famous part of the classic Iliad, which is like listing and listing all these islands, these Greek islands, but it’s very hard to read now. If I did it with the Greek Islands anyone would go, "Oh yeah, this doesn’t mean anything to me." So in the States we talk about boys from Ohio, Brooklyn, the Bronx, so when we tour, wherever we are, we create a new scene. I've memorised a list of Egyptian towns, and we've done that in Australia and New Zealand as well. We want people to feel the same way or at least understand and relate to these characters.

Peterson: It's really fun for us because it’s so much about being present, and Denis is so present on stage. It’s just so special to have him tell a story in front of you. To be honest, it’s different every night. He just won’t repeat himself. And I'm not saying this because Denis is here, but in addition to being a wonderful character actor on television and in films, he’s one of the best American theatre actors.

I'm pretty sure you get asked this question a lot, but how? How do you survive up there for 100 minutes by yourself?

O'Hare: Well, we usually have a musician with us, so in that respect it’s actually not just me but two people, but we didn't have him in the flesh in Cairo. He’s doing another gig in New York.

No, but seriously, how do you prepare yourself? Because I'd just cry and faint…

O'Hare: There are a lot of technical stresses, so I’m always worried about my voice, there’s a lot of anxiety about that. Like, I worry if I haven’t been sleeping that good. Then the basic stuff which is learning the lines. I would say 98% of them are still in my head but that 2% could still kill you, where you reach for a verb. So I always review during the time I have. Then you have to think about why we’re doing it and why the character is doing it and where the character is on this night. It could change, depending on where we are. It was a bit odd to be here in Egypt as I had to think what he was thinking and what his experience was, but it was still wonderful.

Peterson: Me and Denis haven't really talked about this before, but out of all the places we’ve performed An Iliad, this is the place that has the most recent political unrest that’s world known, and we are like a block away from Tahrir Square, where it all happened. Our character beams up from ancient Greece to each place, but just imagine for him to beam up and feel the presence of Tahrir Square and all of the barbed wire in the streets. I don’t think that our poet has been in a place like this before, has he?

O'Hare: No, because America, everything is somewhere else. We export our war. There was Occupy Wall Street, which I think was contained…

Peterson: Except for the presence of 9/11 in New York. When we first did this, we were thinking about it. There are a few places towards the end of this where we don’t have it articulated.

O'Hare: I’m still thinking about that.


You said when you first started An Iliad, you were thinking about 9/11. When exactly did it start and for how long have you guys been doing it?

Peterson: We’ve been writing it for over ten years and we’ve been talking about performing it since 2005, but the first time I started staging it was five years ago with two different actors. Denis has been performing it since 2012.

Do people's reactions change from state to state, country to country? What were you expecting of Egypt?

O'Hare: It changes in many ways, it changes with political climate. When we first did the play we have a line called nine years, and it was exactly nine years from 2003, when America first invaded Iraq. Nine years had a very strong meaning for us. We’re beyond that now and we’re out of Iraq officially, but we’re still in Afghanistan. We also have ISIS now, and ISIS is a very confusing thing for anybody because you kind of think “Well, do you not fight them? Do you not resist them?” Because they're really evil. They’re the bad guys. Isn’t that the proper use of the military? To go up against someone like that? So it confuses the simple anti-war stance when you’re faced with a… Hitler - that’s the example everyone always uses.

The play, also is not talking simply about one side. ISIS should also see this play. They should understand that what they’re doing can have no practical effect. What they can do will not last. All they’re doing is killing themselves and other people. They're nihilists, they’re wasting their own lives. They’re destroying things. That’s just as bad as anything else. They need this play more than anybody. They’re seducing young men into the idea that killing other people is a solution. That’s wrong. And our play speaks of that. So An Iliad is still very relevant when it comes to thinking about their existence. People always say "well you’re saying we shouldn’t fight people like Hitler?" You kind of go no, but Hitler also shouldn’t fight. It’s both sides.

What brought you guys to Egypt though? Why Egypt of all places?

Peterson: We particularly wanted to come to the Middle East but we want to go everywhere. We want to go particularly interesting parts of the world where the culture is different. But Egypt happened because there was a program at Sundance Festival that focuses on engaging with and meeting theatre artists in the Middle East and North Africa, so they met DCAF's Ahmed El-Attar, and convinced him to bring us to Cairo, and here we are.

O'Hare: We also want to go to Beirut, Tunisia, Hong Kong, Singapore, but particularly the Middle East, a place so many Americans are afraid of right now without any form of evidence. It's the most baseless sort of fear.

That is sadly true, because I have so many American friends and before they came to Cairo they thought the same thing, but once they came they realised it's not as bad as the media makes it look like... 

O'Hare: Exactly. I was just saying we came from Chicago, working on our other play The Good Book that's about the Bible and we were in a place called High Park in Chicago, where there were security guards on many blocks all day and night and signs that say "No Guns" which means that people are carrying guns. In America, we have millions and millions of people carrying guns all the time. So talk about what’s dangerous? You could get shot in a movie theatre in Colorado… There are shootings all the time.

On a lighter note, have you had time to experience Egypt? Did you do any tourist-y things?

Peterson: I've been to Coptic Cairo; it's unbelievable, so much history.

O'Hare: I tried foul, and I love it. I also went to the Pyramids with my family, which was fantastic, and I’m really glad I went. A little incident happened there though. I was there with my husband and son and someone asked me, "Do you have a son?" I answered yes and pointed at mine. The guy asked my husband the same question and he could only answer with "Well, I have, a, son."


As you know - or you should know - American Horror Story has a large following in Egypt, are you going to be in the new season?

O'Hare: Yes I will, but how do you know about it? Are people here caught up? How do you watch it?

*whispers "We pirate them"*

O'Hare: Haha, I'm glad people are watching it.

There's rumours that Lady Gaga is going to be in the new season of American Horror Story, is that true?

O'Hare: The rumours are true, but to be fair, if she's going to be in a TV show, it'd be American Horror Story. It's crazy though, who knows what she'll be doing in it.


Photography by Shady Ismail.