Theatre review: Hercules

A modern lens dismantling of the myth-making behind the heroic figure of Hercules.

The Daniel Schlusser Ensemble are at the cutting edge of Australian theatre, and their new play Hercules is a vivid reification of toxic masculinity. Named for the mythical Greek leader, the multi-modal theatre work combines contemporary politics, meme culture and observations from the performers with a riot grrl punk-like casting ethic to create a work that probes into the depths of our culture’s penchant for tolerating male violence. 

The infanticide practice by Hercules, who shot his wife and three sons with arrows, is just a jumping off point. ‘Our newest work tackles a range of social realities – the pressures of hyper-productivity, particularly on mothers and carers; culturally codified misogyny; and the tragic consequences of confused masculinity, heroism and coercive control.’ Schlusser says, speaking to Broadway, and it’s a more controversial subject than expected in an environment where Amber Heard is being reviled on Twitter for a defamation trial about her allegations of intimate partner abuse. It’s an act of public villification that brings to mind the original Greek femme fatale Medea and her own horrifying act of violence. 

But when we think of child murder, why do we think Medea and not Hercules? According to Schlusser, that’s not an accident either. ‘And the answer is reasonably obvious: there is a taboo around the mother that there just isn’t around the father. The culture is sustaining the idea that [male violence] is not a taboo.’ It’s a weighty subject but the ensemble, featuring Mary Helen Sassman, Katherine Tonkin and Edwina Wren are absolutely up to the task. 

Read: Musical review: Driftwood

The play brings its punk rock actors’ aesthetic to a kindergarten classroom and its set and costume design by Romanie Harper and Bethany J Fellows evoke all the innocence you can expect from a childcare setting. The dialogue interacts inventively with the set, creating a narrative that unfolds gradually, across genres and conventions, and combines sharp humour with a razor edge of truth. The juxtaposition between the naive and child-like set design and the threat of violence mesmerises and creates an installation that spellbinds across the visual, dramatic, narrative and thematic aspects of the play. 

As programmers of contemporary art, Arts House are at the top of their game. This is a subject of the moment, yes, but it’s also performed with a dizzying technical skill that ensure this will be one of the lasting achievements of this decade in theatre. 

Hercules, by Daniel Schlusser Ensemble
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall

Directed by Daniel Schlusser
Written by Daneil Schlusser, Mary-Helen Sassman, Edwina Wren and Katherin Tonkin
Set and Costume Designers: Romanie Harper and Bethany J Fellows 
Composer, Sound and AV Designer: James Paul  
Producer: Erin Milne 
Cast: Mary-Helen Sassman, Katherine Tonkin and Edwina Wren
   Hercules was performed from 24-28 May 2022.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin