This may not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Pierre Brault’s work, but his latest, The Last Spartan, is a fantastic show.
Dorion was raised from birth to be the perfect soldier, the pinnacle of Spartan achievement. After being captured by the Athenians instead of dying on the battlefield at Sphacteria however, his status was demoted and now he lives as a tanner, marked as a “trembler.” A chance for redemption in Spartan society comes when the leader Lysander offers him the job of defending in court Cimon, a poet who dares to question the supremacy of the gods, Spartan military values, and more. No one expects Dorion to win the case, but they see sending a ‘troublemaker’ to his death as Dorion reaffirming his commitment to Spartan values. Having spent time in Athens and seeing the good that art can bring society, Dorion must make the choice between returning to the society that raised him, or abandoning it in return for his own rejection.
The story is wonderfully structured, following a neat and easily traceable story arc that still surprises: like many Greek dramatic heroes, Dorion’s position is not an easy one. A variety of characters – Dorion, Cimon, Lysander, Dorion’s estranged wife Acantha, even the Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes – flesh out the world of Sparta near the end of the 5th century BCE, without any characters feeling extraneous to the plot. Instead, each character reveals a little more detail about Spartan life. Acantha’s inclusion, for example, allows for Brault to address the role of women in Spartan society (which was very different from other Greek city-states), as well as reinforcing the (to us) horrible thought of celebrating the death of your son in battle. The result is a show that paints an evocative picture of the contrast between Athens and Sparta – an impressive feat considering how little we know historically about Sparta.
Though Dorion, Cimon, and Acantha are fictional (these weren’t uncommon names though, and Lysander and Aristophanes certainly did exist), The Last Spartan is otherwise perfectly historically accurate – at one point Aristophanes mentions that (Athenian tragic playwright) Sophocles died the previous year, setting TLS around 404/403 BCE. Having been captured at Sphacteria two decades earlier, it makes perfect sense for Dorion to be somewhat world-weary (and also in the same age range as Brault). Given that Sparta was making the final push to win the decades-long Peloponnesian War against Athens at this point, the threat of Spartan annihilation of the more liberal Athenian arts of drama, music, and poetry was very much a source of tension historically and Brault brilliantly expresses it in Dorion’s moral quandary (and modern artists might notice a certain historical parallelism as well). The levels of Spartan society – full Spartan, perioikoi (literally “those who live around here,” a sort of merchant class), and helots (state-owned slaves who were kept in check by a real-life annual Purge) and other details are clearly expressed so that even if your knowledge of Greek history is limited to Troy and 300 you shouldn’t have much difficulty with the historical content.
Brault plays all the roles, and even though he barely changes costume nor leaves the stage the entire time, each transition between character is carefully delineated by vocal changes, and slight changes in physical positioning, as well as one scene involving the clever use of an actor’s mask. There is no set at all and only a few props, and yet I was completely transfixed by both the dramatic and historic qualities of the story and Brault’s ability to have a three-way conversation with himself (and himself).
The Last Spartan is a timely and compelling historical drama brought wonderfully to life by Brault’s unassailable acting chops. I have no doubt Ottawa audiences will have more opportunities to see this show after this year’s Fringe ends, but I heartily recommend you see it now if you can.
The Last Spartan
Written and Performed by Pierre Brault
Produced by Jamine Ackert
At La Nouvelle Scène, Studio B (Venue 6)