I used to work for Macnas in Galway and in 2001 I was inspired to draft a proposal for a show based on the myth of Heracles (or Hercules as the Romans had him). I submitted it on spec and nothing ever came of it (and I mean nothing, it wasn’t even acknowledged). The written treatment is lost on a crashed harddrive somewhere but I found the designs I drew up to go with the proposal last night so I thought I’d share them here.
Macnas at the time had an obsession with The Odyssey, producing no less than 3 shows based around the epic, including a promenade performance for the Galway Arts Festival called Ollie Deasy. This had a stylised contemporary Irish setting, and had some successful stagecraft in it. I thought I’d continue in the vein, proposing an adaptation of the labours of Heracles with a similar setting, and came up with The Tasks of Harry Cleese.
At the time I’d just come across Julie Taymor and was exceptionally turned on by her approach to puppetry and performance, and had met and worked with Michael Curry in New York the previous year for the Millenium celebrations. Also, Irish production designer Tom Conroy had given several of us a crash course in designing for the stage and street during the year. Those influences are very apparent looking back on these drawings.
From the story I submitted I seem to remember that the drink was Harry’s demon, and that his wife had left him, taking the kids with her (Heracles in the Greek original had killed his own children during a bout of madness), and the tasks were a feverish penance in his own head to right his wrongs. So his own home was laid siege by the Hydra in the form of a tree (see above), mocking him every time he looked out the window.
Harry’s friend, imagined as Pholus the Centaur, who sets him off on his tasks.
Harry sets off through the audience.
Harry haunted by the Lamia-like image of his wife.
Harry tames wild (Thracian) Horses. Very Taymor, but the notion of exposing the performer in costume puppetry seemed very radical at the time and made a huge impression on me.
Harry captures an escaped ostrich. This amalgamated several of the tasks, and I think there was a lot in the news about ostrich farming at the time!
The Stymphalian Birds: Stimp and Phil. These would have been rivetted puppets with features made from printing metal and would have been comic relief. Harry kills them in rage when they taunt him.
How Stimp and Phil would have made their entrance: different puppets, swooping in the dark over the audience’s head.
The cow stampede/ Cattle of Geryon.
Cerberus would have been three wild dogs that attack Harry, with the performers coming together at times to suggest a three-headed hound.
It would have ended with Harry taking an axe to the mocking Hydra in the (hopefully) emotional crescendo of the show.
It’s kind of wistful finding something like this and knowing it’ll never see the light of day. It was obviously highly derivative but at the time I was pretty confident it would make a good show.
Alas, Harry Cleese won’t be mounting his bicycle.