Classically Inclined

September 2, 2014

Classics on television: Plebs

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:07 am
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I wrote this post last year and then forgot to post it… as the second season has been announced, I thought now was as good a time as any to post it. Enjoy!

I’m sure most of you picked up on the ITV2 show Plebs that finished its first season recently. I’m not planning to say a great deal about individual episodes – Juliette Harrison has done that much more eloquently and systematically already – but I did want to make a few observations, not least because this is the first Roman-based television series to be done for a while in UK television. It’s playing with a couple of traditions of British comedy – when the series was first announced, parallels were drawn with Chelmsford 123, while in execution it definitely acknowledges its debt to a particular form of British awkward comedy serials like Gavin and Stacey and The IT Crowd. So, how successful was it?

plebs-itvTime to invoke the first rule of classical reception – this is not about accuracy and whether the slum hovel that the boys rent is an accurate representation of slum hovels in ancient Rome. Plebs made no secret of the fact that it saw itself as primarily being about what would happen if you took modern people and stuck them in Rome – it’s not interested in doing the sort of thing that even Spartacus: Blood and Sand does in exploring the life of a gladiator, sex, brutality and all (and also far fewer intentional laughs, but I digress). It’s not particularly interested in getting historical accuracy – but it does capture some very Roman attitudes, and once the series gets going it starts to engage with some elements of historical fact in interesting ways.

That ‘once the series gets going’ is quite important, to me at least – I found that I enjoyed the series a lot more once the pace had settled down and the writers had got the bodily function stuff out of the way. Humour is one of those very personal things, I know, and I don’t mean to seem prudish, but scatological jokes have always been a negative for me, and I did get perilously close to not finishing the series after That Scene With The Togas. However, it seems as if the writers were having a bit of an insecurity moment, and once they’d got past that phase, the jokes started to feel funnier.

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August 11, 2014

Film review: Hercules (2014)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:32 am
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We’re quite fond of Dwayne Johnson in our house. He’s got good form on historical-ish fantasy films (see The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King), plus he played a tooth fairy opposite Julie Andrews – what’s not to like? So we were looking forward to the new Hercules – Ian McShane as Amphiaraus, Rufus Sewell as Autolycus and John Hurt as Lord Cotys basically have far too much fun chewing the scenery, which is in and of itself utterly glorious. It’s a film that’s having fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously, which immediately makes it more enjoyable to watch. But I’ve watched plenty of atrocious cinema in the name of classical reception in my time – so why did this not only feel like a more fun viewing experience than Immortals, but also a more successful one from the classical reception perspective?

One thing strongly in its favour is its choice of theme. Some recent films have got, frankly, a bit overawed with the idea of Family as a unifying concept for classical reception films, normally in terms of sorting out questions of Male Identity and Man’s Place In This World, and it gets a bit superficial after a while. (I wrote about this a bit in terms of the Clash of the Titans remake if you’re interested – link to PDF.) Hercules couldn’t care less – we’re not dealing with an identity crisis here, or at least, not one that springs out of a contested identity. What the movie is far more interested in are questions of deception and appearance – how do we know what is true? How do we know what really happened?

This attitude first reveals itself in a wonderful meta-awareness of how ancient myth actually worked, and allows the movie to wear that heritage lightly. Hercules, it turns out, isn’t a one-man show – he comes with a team. One of that team is his nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), whose job is to sing the tales of Hercules and thus put fear into his enemies. Except the tales he sings are, shall we say, massaged. They are explicitly not the truth. In them, Hercules becomes the son of Zeus rather than an orphan; he alone slays fantastic enemies, without the help of his team; his skin becomes invulnerable and his lion skin becomes impenetrable. We see the creation of a myth happen in front of us, but as a deliberate choice on the part of the characters who are mainly interested in getting the next paid commission – which is easier if you have good PR. Sure, Hercules is strong and performs feats of strength, but isn’t it more sellable if he’s also a son of Zeus? That lightness of touch means the ‘myth is all created, innit’ feels freer than, for instance, Immortals‘ rather clunky True Origins of the Minotaur story.

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August 4, 2014

On social media and impact – a reflection

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 2:30 pm
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I mentioned a while ago that I’d been asked to co-facilitate an event run by the Classical Reception Studies Network about impact and social media. Now that event has taken place, I thought I’d put a couple of thoughts down about it. The event was sort-of-livetweeted by others using the hashtag #csrn, but I don’t think any of us got around to archiving those tweets (ironic, given that one of the things we discussed was the use of Storify).

The afternoon was essentially an opportunity for people who were using social media in various ways to talk about how we used it and what platforms worked, and for people who were interested in using social media in the future or who wanted to know how they might improve their usage to learn, ask for ideas and so forth. Nobody acted as an expert, although the experiences of Emma Bridges (who moderates Classics International over on Facebook) and myself provided a starting-off point for discussions.  I have to admit that my decision to come onto various social media platforms was horribly calculated – my very first post provided a rationale for why I was doing this, although as my post a year later showed, my manifesto shifted and indeed continues to shift depending on how much energy I’ve got spare. Before I got onto Twitter I even (horror of horrors) got out a book from the university library about how to manage one’s brand on-line to work out what I was doing. But oddly enough, that deliberate approach has saved me from a lot of the pitfalls and confusions that I’ve encountered on other platforms, like Facebook (which I got onto because some old students told me I really should be, and now is an odd space full of friends, family, old students and senior colleagues). This sense of needing to work out boundaries and what you are actually doing was something everyone shared – having a clear aim definitely seemed to work better than just sort of hoping.

Another point that came up was the importance of accepting that you can’t control the internet – there’s no point in defining success in metrics about how many people  read or engage with things, because online space can’t be controlled in that way. (See, for instance, the fact that the post with the most hits on here is about writing a thesis introduction, not anything to do with my research or teaching.) Another point that emerged in the conversation was about community – many people commented on how good it was to speak to others in the field, build networks with people in other countries, and cross the interdisciplinary boundaries through the more informal engagement possible on something like Twitter.

I learned things myself – for instance, Silvie Kilgallon gave us a great explanation of how Tumblr works through her various sites, including the Stitched Iliad project and Aristotelian Complacency. I now understand how Tumblr functions, although I have to admit that it’s not for me – it doesn’t really fit with what I’m doing or how I tend to communicate my work. But this was another important thing that I wanted to say, and I think did get said, which was that there wasn’t any point in Doing Stuff on social media unless it worked for you. In the days of graduate training enthusiastically telling every graduate to set up a blog, I think it’s worth pausing to ask why you are doing these things and what it achieves. Without a clear sense of what you are about, it becomes very easy to lose focus and thus lose motivation. And, as we all agreed, there’s nothing sadder than discovering a dead blog that hasn’t been updated in months with no farewell post.

The final important point that came out of the workshop was that social media has a particularly helpful role to play when it comes to classical reception studies. Those of us (like me) who talk a lot about books, films and other forms of cultural production can reach out to the people consuming this material, and indeed in some cases to the people producing it. That means our scholarship has the chance of reaching beyond the walls of the academy and to a general interest audience – some of whom will be reading this post now. And if you are, thank you. Having the chance to talk about my research and my general thoughts about the subject I love to people who aren’t colleagues or students is precious, and I’m glad that you all stick around to listen.

There is an official report on the workshop written by Carol Atack available in PDF form.

Edit: We also seem to have spawned a blog.

July 29, 2014

Medea at the National Theatre

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 12:24 pm
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The National Theatre’s new production of Medea has been getting positive reviews, including a considerable spread in the Evening Standard (although I think the comment about Creon being under-used misses the point of how Greek tragedy works). The script is a new version by Ben Power – unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much out there about how he’s worked with the text, although he’s doing a Platform talk on the process that I’m going to try to get to. It’s not entirely faithful to the original Greek – the nurse becomes conflated with the pedagogue and says a closing epilogue, for instance – but after teaching the play in the autumn , I could hear plenty of echoes of the original Greek in there. The language is powerful and imaginative, although quite terse and quickly paced, and keeps ancient elements like calling on the gods without trying to modernise them.

The production has an interesting approach to music – it is accompanied by new compositions from Goldfrapp, which manage to be compelling and eerie at the same time. The chorus actually sing their choral interludes, which is rather wonderful and very effective; they also dance, although I have to say that while I can see the spasmodic choreography as mirroring the emotional and psychological convulsions of the plot, it was a bit difficult to take it entirely seriously. The dance of the princess as she tried to remove the poisoned dress worked much better from that perspective. I think the musical soundtrack was one of the strongest elements of the production – it underlays everything, very much like a film score (I shall come back to that point), and so intertwines in the audience’s consciousness to very strong effect. It’s a very subtle score, enhancing emotional response without dictating it too obviously; I noticed it with a jolt in the closing scenes, not because it did anything differently, but because my brain suddenly noticed it was there! This might have more to do with my immersive attitude to theatre-going, but I can’t remember a recent production that’s handled its music this well that hasn’t been musical theatre or opera.

The chorus themselves wear dresses covered in a shabby-chic floral print that echo the woods which are presented at the back of the stage (hypothetically ‘outside’ the house in which the action takes place); it’s not until the end of the play that it becomes clear that the patterns of flowers on their dresses echo the bloodstains on Medea’s dress after she has murdered her children. The handling of the chorus is one of those particularly difficult challenges for modern productions; here, the director has them fade on and off stage, meaning they can be read either as ‘real’ characters or as figments of Medea’s imagination, which was a convincing approach. They also made good use of a boxed-off room at mezzanine level, in which the wedding of Jason and Creusa was played out – that let the audience see the progress of the party (and Creusa’s eventual death-dance) without detracting from the action in the ‘main’ house.

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May 29, 2014

Lily Allen’s Imperial Ambitions

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:52 am
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Lily AllenFor the last couple of weeks, when I’ve jumped out of the tube on my commute into work, I’ve been greeted by the poster which I’ve photographed here. I should point out that I know very little about Lily Allen’s music, and have no particular interest in commenting on it, but here was a really interesting use of Latin that I wanted to mull over.

The Latin in question is, as you will see, the motto Divide Et Impera, or ‘Divide And Rule’. Grammatically, three points occur. First, it’s a convenient fact that divide and the English divide look the same, so that anyone without a Latin background will probably get the general ‘divide and conquer’ gist.  Second, divide and impera are in the singular imperative – that is, they are only ordering one person to do something (and, it has to be said, ordering them very directly rather than politely using the hortatory subjunctive, but that’s less by the by). Third, both divide and impera are transitive verbs – that is, they take direct objects, things to be divided and conquered. Those things are not specified here. So the grammar of the motto leaves us asking who is being ordered, and what is to be divided and conquered?

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May 20, 2014

Julian Anderson’s Thebans at the ENO

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:27 pm
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Anyone thinking that classical reception has had its day in anything except cheesy cinema should take a look at Julian Anderson’s new opera Thebans, having its premier run at the English National Opera at the moment. Regular readers will know that there is quite a lot of classical reception knocking around in opera, so Anderson is following a well-established inspirational route (as indeed was Harrison Birtwhistle). It was very exciting to be in the audience for one of the earliest performances a couple of weeks ago – but, as you might have gathered, I have some thoughts on how this material was used and put together. I don’t have a great deal to say about the musical side, but here are a couple of reviews which do just that.

Anderson had set himself quite an ambitious task in getting the three Theban plays into one opera, and has fiddled around with the order – he starts with Oedipus Rex, going to Antigone for the second act, and Oedipus Colonus for the finale. Anderson argues in his program notes that his reason for doing this was to create more dramatic unity. Each act begins with a chronological subtitle (‘past’, ‘future’ and ‘present’) so we know where we are in the arc; this adds to a sense of inevitability about the plot’s movement, but does take a bit of the bite out of the bleak dead end which closes Antigone. In order to get everything in, Anderson has also done some rigorous pruning – Oedipus Rex takes up the hour or so of the first act, but Antigone is given twenty minutes, and Oedipus at Colonus has half an hour. Again, this is probably favourable to slavishly following the structure of the originals, especially since they were not originally written as a trilogy. However, those choices to cut have consequences.

At first, I was quite keen on the Antigone being trimmed that much – I think it’s a difficult play to produce well, because the plot’s reliance on an audience understanding the tension between honouring your state and honouring your gods tends to flummox modern directors (see my thoughts on the National’s recent Antigone). However, the problem that Anderson’s trimming of the play creates is that Antigone herself is more or less side-lined – her great agon with Creon is all but gone, and instead the emphasis lies on the relationship between Creon and his son Haemon. Antigone’s probing challenge to the state is replaced by Creon’s suffering at his calamitous parenting; Antigone’s death becomes tragic because of the action it causes for Haemon rather than her sacrifice and commitment to principles. She also becomes almost silent. As you may imagine, I have Issues with adaptations that silence women’s voices, particularly those from the ancient world (even if they are voices enacted by men).

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May 12, 2014

Classical reception at Eurovision 2014

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:55 am
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As anyone who follows my Twitter feed will know, I spent Saturday night curled up in front of Eurovision. Because, frankly, we finally have a proper television, and I am fully in favour of anything that lets me watch great big showcase cheesiness. Of course, the problem with watching anything this pop-culture-y is that there is a fair chance that something related to classical reception will turn up on the screen, and my wee analytical brain will jump into action.

This year, the most sustained offering came from Italy:

This is La Mia Città performed by Emma Marrone. If you look at a translation of the lyrics, you will see it is a paean to modern city living, presumably in Rome – commuting, finding a parking space, urban narcissism, getting high heels stuck in manhole covers, the lot. Fine. However, the costume stylists clearly decided that urban commuter was not a look they were going for this season, so they tapped into the ancestral heritage of the country instead. Emma is given a marvellous white tunic with gold spangling that looks, certainly from the waist up, very reminiscent of a Roman military breastplate; a big white cape with a rather nice jewelled neck clasp, just in case we weren’t getting the military allusion, particularly at the start of the sequence; and a golden laurel wreath in her hair, the symbol of the military victor and holder of imperium. In fact, the whole band get to have golden laurels, even the keytar player. (I couldn’t get a good enough look at Emma’s shoes in the footage to establish their design beyond the fact they have very high heels, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some element of sandal straps in there.)

However, as far as classical reception goes, that’s it. From what I could see in the footage of the big stage screens, no ancient imagery turns up, although there were one or two glyphs that you might have argued were vaguely ancient if you felt like pushing it, and a bit of circling Greek keys pattern. The lyrics had no particular classical interest; they don’t even specify that the city under discussion is Rome, clearly aiming to have general appeal for metropolitan voters. The staging was not particularly interesting and didn’t make any use of the classical possibilities – the band stood still whilst Emma strode around (a time-honoured Eurovision pattern). Which raises the question – why bother going classical in the first place?

It’s not as if you can’t use classical reception in a really interesting way in musical performances – Madonna’s Superbowl half-time show in 2012 showed us that it’s possible to take the theme and do conceptually clever and witty things with it. Unfortunately, Italy this year haven’t gone in that direction. Instead, they’ve chosen to essentially run with a stripped-down basic visual semantics that says ‘ancient Roman imperialism’ that we’re all just supposed to get. Apart from a few suggestions that Emma was channelling She-Ra, in the main all the responses on Twitter seem to have happily gone along with it. Nobody’s saying ‘what the hell? Why? What does this mean? What are we meant to make of this visual combination of white and gold? What’s with the head-pieces?’ – because everybody knows how to read this stuff.

Sadly, the Italian team didn’t decide to do anything beyond telling us they know their own heritage, and know we know it. The only possible interpretation I can come up with is that it was a subliminal attempt to influence the voters at home by suggesting that the group had authority over Eurovision and were the only possible victors – not an angle supported either by the song or the staging. A wasted opportunity, methinks.

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April 25, 2014

The Classical Association Conference 2014 – Nottingham

Filed under: Uncategorized — lizgloyn @ 9:49 am
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Last week classicists from around the country were hosted by the University of Nottingham for the annual Classical Association conference; long-time readers may remember my conference report from the 2012 event. I had been referring in jest to my break in sunny Nottingham, but the weather took me at my word – we had glorious sunshine, and were able to enjoy the beauties of University Park campus, including a wonderful lake for strolling around. For the academic side of things, those of you who follow me on Twitter will have seen that the hashtag #CA14 was getting good traffic, and not just from me – we’ve been praised from many different quarters for the quality of our livetweeting. (This may or may not have anything to do with the fact that on Wednesday evening I decided we probably needed a livetweeting protocol, and lo, by Friday we had a livetweeting protocol.)

From a social point of view, the difference between my 2012 experience and last week’s was huge. It seemed I could hardly turn a corner without seeing somebody I wanted to say hello to, somebody whose work I knew and I wanted to introduce myself to, somebody I’d heard speak, somebody I’d sat with during dinner, somebody I knew from the States… it felt good to feel as if I have now got enough of a UK network to be able to feel as if three and a half days isn’t enough to talk to all the interesting people I know. There was also a good chance to meet new people, created by the CA’s policy of sitting everyone on communal tables for dinner; you can sit with friends on one side and new friends on the other, which is a great way of breaking down all sorts of unhelpful hierarchies. Nobody can think about hierarchies while there is dessert on offer.

And what of the academic side? (more…)

March 4, 2014

Book review: Shadow of the Minotaur – Alan Gibbons

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 8:17 am
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During my big trawl for books that were retelling the Minotaur myth in the context of London, I was pointed towards Shadow of the Minotaur. I didn’t get my hands on it in time for the deadlines I was working towards, which actually is just as well – it’s located not in London, but Brownleigh, somewhere whose main characteristic is very pointedly not being London. However, it’s an interesting addition to my thoughts about how myth and place and space interact, particularly as the Minotaur seems to be a myth which offers a lot of scope for that kind of interpretative engagement.

Shadow is the first in The Legendeer trilogy, and while I haven’t read the second and third books, I think I can see where we’re going. From a literary point of view, I have to say that Shadow isn’t particularly thrilling – it’s fairly standard Young Adult ‘young man coming to terms with his identity and this whole growing up thing and how he feels about his parents and adolescence and not fitting in and STUFF’, which is all good standard material and themes, but I don’t think the writing is strong enough to make it have an appeal beyond its target audience. However, from the classical reception point of view, Gibbons does a very interesting thing. He makes the entry-point into the world of myth a computer game, which turns out to not actually be a game, but a world existing in parallel to our own which has come under the control of the Gamesmaster.

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November 1, 2013

Rihanna, Medusa, GQ and Photoshop

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:47 am
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Some of you will already have seen on Rogue Classicism that the current edition of GQ features a portfolio of shots taken by Damien Hurst of Rihanna… as Medusa. I saw these photos and thought ‘well, that’s interesting’, but what with my whole Medusa and monsters and space thing, those thoughts just sort of kept going, and here I am, writing a blog post on Rihanna in GQ. Which, somewhat embarrassingly, I keep on mis-typing as CQ, and I can only hope that the editors of that august journal would be amused rather than offended. I’m putting a copy of the front cover picture below the cut to make this vaguely SFW, but if you’ve found this post with the predictable search terms – prepare yourself for a bit of cultural analysis to go along with your mildly salacious picture.

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