It’s been that time of year again – when hoards of classicists descend upon the Cambridge Arts Theatre to see whatever is being presented as the triennial offering of the Greek Play. Since I wrote about the 2013 play, the Greek Play website has been given a revamp to include a lot of material from the Greek Play archives, all the way back to the performance of the Ajax in 1882. I should also note that the first production to include more than one woman seems to have been the 1950 Oedipus at Colonus, which is really quite late if you think about it, particularly since Bedford College had been putting an all-female Greek play (starting with Iphigenia in Tauris) since 1887. The single outlier was Janet Case, who played Athena in the 1885 Eumenides, but no other women appeared on stage until the 1950 production. But I digress.
This year’s offering followed the format of the 2013 production by bookending a tragedy and a comedy; my thoughts on gender come a little from the choice to stage Antigone and Lysistrata, plays which both revolve around female protagonists. The pairing of tragedy-comedy is meant to try and capture something of the spirit of the Great Dionysia, where the audience would be given the blessed relief of a satyr play after a thematically linked sequence of three tragedies. I have to say that there is something to this, the idea that after being plunged into gloom, the responsible dramatist pushes down hard on the other side of the seesaw. There’s also something very rich in the demands made of actors shifting between modes so quickly, and it allows the comedy to make jokes using the audience’s knowledge of what happened in the tragedy. Helen Eastman, the director of the Greek Play since 2010, has spoken about the improv/workshop approach she takes in the seven weeks before the performances, which allows the plays to develop organically and in dialogue with each other. This relatively short window is particularly important for the comedy, which needs to keep pace with current events; I think the team deserve a small round of applause for managing to keep on top of political developments over those seven weeks without completely loosing the will to live at the number of rewrites they must have needed.