Classically Inclined

October 20, 2016

The Cambridge Greek Play 2016

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 5:16 pm
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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 playthe 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.

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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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April 4, 2014

Teaching at Royal Holloway – a reflection

Term finished at Royal Holloway at the end of March; I’ve now had enough time to catch my breath and finish off all the odds and ends from my teaching, so I can look back over how the year’s teaching has gone. Of course, I’ve still got the marking of exam season to come – precisely when will depend on whether the marking boycott called by UCU as part of the current pay dispute goes ahead. That issue sadly highlights a problem in teaching – there’s more to the process than just the mark that you get in the exam at the end, and when that becomes fetishized as the only valuable outcome of the university experience, we’re doing something wrong. Plashing Vole has written about these issues far more intelligently than I can, so I suggest you read him on them while I think a bit about my first year of teaching in a new institution.

It’s been a heavy teaching load this year, with three and a half units (which is effectively the same as teaching four units in the second term). The first term was manageable, as the three language courses were mainly intensive in the hour of teaching scheduled rather than in the preparation – after all, once you’ve selected an unseen passage and put together the handout, there’s not really much more you can do until you’re in the classroom. However, the second term added a new lecture course to the mix, and that meant I had to prepare two hours of fresh lecture each week on top of nine hours of language teaching. That took a lot of effort, and left me with little time for anything else. On the plus side, I’ll be reusing my prep for Intermediate Latin and the lecture course next year, so it’s work well invested. A few thoughts come to mind about each course.

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October 27, 2013

The Cambridge Greek Play 2013

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:18 pm
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I’ve been pondering the Cambridge Greek Play since seeing it last Saturday at the matinee performance. I’m not entirely sure how we ended up with tickets in the very front row – I think it had something to do with booking as soon as tickets were available – but there we were, ensconced for a double bill of Aeschylus’ Prometheus and Aristophanes’ The Frogs. I’ve been trying to work out what I thought of it ever since. I mean that in a good way.

The history of the Cambridge Greek play goes back to 1882, when the first play in Greek was performed, fuelled by an interest in ‘authentic performance’, costumes and sets – the photographs are wondrous to behold. The play is performed every three years, and although special trains are no longer laid on to get the keen audiences up from town, the theatre is still packed out (translations are now provided by surtitles). There is a healthy tradition of performing Greek plays in the UK – Kings will be staging Aristophanes’ Wasps in February, and in historical parallels I recently saw an fantastic archive photo of the women of Bedford College in the late nineteenth century togged up in togas and false beards for one of their productions. It’s a pleasure to see that the Cambridge contribution is not only maintained, but well attended. Well attended, I should add, not only by those of us who might be considered under professional obligations as academic staff, teachers, graduates, undergraduates and school pupils, but by members of the general public. These audience members may have done a bit of Latin and Greek themselves at school, or may have simply come along because the play was listed in the Cambridge Arts offerings for the month and they fancied seeing what it was all about. So the producers and cast of this play have a tricky brief to fulfil – they have to make sure that the results of their labours appeals to these often divergent audiences.

This year was a first for the Greek Play because it offered two plays instead of the normal one. There’s a good reason behind this, namely that it recreates a little of the original Athenian theatre-going experience. At the Great Dionysia festival, the audience would normally have watched three tragedies and a satyr play by the same playwright; three tragedians would submit a day of drama and one would be pronounced the winner. Five comedians would offer a play each, and their contest would take up a day. We only have one surviving tragic trio (Aeschylus’ Oresteia), and one complete surviving satyr play (Euripides’ Cyclops); the decision to couple the Prometheus with an Aristophanic comedy was therefore one of necessity as much as anything else. However, I do wonder whether we will be seeing this format again. As G pointed out, the interface between the two worked so well because Frogs is all about tragedy, and whether Aeschylus or Euripides is Best Playwright, and so the production was able to offer not just comedy, but comedy targeted at the very thing the audience had spent the previous hour or so watching. Part of the pleasure of Frogs definitely came from seeing characters from Prometheus acting in silly non-tragic ways – I’m not sure that repeating the experiment with any other Aristophanic or Menandrian play would be so effective. (This presumably was in the minds of the producers when they made their choice…)

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December 17, 2012

End of term wrap-up

What with one thing and another, I’ve been run off my feet for the last fortnight or so. Term has now officially been over for a week, but I don’t feel as if I’ve got the paperwork and administration for everything quite under control yet. It’s getting there, but there are a couple of things that still need finishing off. I have, of course, finished all my teaching. The Roman novel first year seminar is working much more smoothly than it did last year; this is partly due to the department increasing seminar lengths from one to two hours across the board, meaning there’s more space for presentations and discussions, but I think the tweaks to the syllabus that I made at the start of the year have paid off as well. There’s still one class that isn’t quite working as I want it to work, but I’ve had another go at redefining the discussion questions, so we’ll see if that helps. It is, in fairness, the class dealing with literary form (e.g. why are parts of the Satyricon in poetry, and do we care?), so I think it’s going to be a case of continually experimenting until I get the formula right. I shall miss my first year tutees, who will be disappearing off to pastures new, but it will be good to meet some more of the first year intake next term.

The Roman Life Course lectures are going well – I have a good group of students, and we’ve established what feels like a productive discussion-based atmosphere to complement the parts of the session where I lecture more traditionally. The material seems to be engaging the students’ interest, and I’m sneakily incorporating as much philosophical evidence for social history as I can – one of the surprise hits was Plutarch’s The Training of Children, which seems to have gone over rather well! The blog posts are still working more or less as I want them to, and the students seem to like the idea of blog-based work in principle even if the practice is a little shakier. I’m also glad that I decided to stick it out with the critical incident questionnaire, for the simple reason that it’s really helping me see what is and isn’t working with this sort of teaching.

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June 21, 2012

Antigone at the National Theatre

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:31 am
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I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Sophocles’ Antigone. I didn’t have much to do with it as an undergrad – as far as I can remember, I spent more time with Euripides’ Hippolytus, Sophocles’ Electra and the Oresteia trilogy. Neither did it form a central element of my graduate training, although of course I read it for my comprehensive exams. But I came to wince whenever a student mentioned that they had read the Antigone in high school. In my admittedly limited experience, it inevitably meant that they had been taught it badly, at least as far as a classicist was concerned, in ways that prioritised presentist readings over appreciation for the ancient context.

This isn’t to say that the Antigone can’t still speak. In fact, the language, imagery and themes of the play remain strikingly powerful and relevant, as the current production at the National Theatre demonstrates. You have probably heard of it as the one with Christopher Eccleston as Creon, thus following David Tennant in bringing legions of Doctor Who fans to more traditional theatre, but the play itself is marvellous. It begins with a recreation of the famous White House situation room photograph released when the death of Osama bin Laden was announced. The question of how to treat the dead was, of course, critical to that incident as well, given the decision to bury bin Laden’s body at sea. The set is evocative of some administrative space in the Iraq Green Zone, all temporary desks and glass offices and typewriters and broken lampshades.

However, the contemporary setting does not distract from the language of the play, in a translation by Don Taylor – the odd ‘terrorist’ creeps in, but as a natural synonym for ‘enemy of the state’. Apparently this translation was made for a BBC production back in the early 1980s, and it’s aged very well indeed. There’s never a moment when the play feels as if it’s being forced to have contemporary relevance; the production allows the power of the original to speak for itself in modern clothes. Eccleston makes an excellent Creon – I had expected a sort of negative version of his Doctor Who, which would have been worth seeing in and of itself, but instead he pulled out acting stops I didn’t know he had to create a convincing picture of a man who’s sure he isn’t really a tyrant while everyone around him is quite sure he is. Jodie Whittaker’s Antigone was also gripping, managing to communicate her passion and single-mindedness with great effect; the scene where she was prepared to be taken to be buried alive was particularly haunting. The chorus are made up of the cast of a political back office – generals, secretaries, administrators – all the people who support Creon’s rule and are thus invested in obeying his judgement rather than speaking truth to power.

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March 19, 2012

Undiscovered treasures – Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica

Filed under: Research,Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:37 am
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One of the things I’ve particularly enjoyed about the epic seminar this term is the opportunity to go outside the boundaries of what I normally teach and explore some of the ‘quirky’ epics which don’t always get the attention they deserve. My big discovery this term has been Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica, which I knew nothing about before preparing for the seminars, thus combining teaching and research in pleasing ways. From what we can tell, the poem was written during the late third century A.D. to replace poems of the Homeric Cycle that had been lost, possibly in the destruction of the library of Alexandria. The poem covers events from the end of the Iliad to sort-of the beginning of the Odyssey – the final book reports the great storm which threw the Greek army off course and provided the first impetus for the voyage of Odysseus.

I will admit that I approached the text with some trepidation. I am not Homer’s greatest fan; I find the Iliad uninspiring and the Odyssey patchy, so I wasn’t at all sure how I would find a work which deliberately sets out to imitate Homer’s style. I’ll be honest, there were some books which just didn’t grip me – but others were awesome. There is some really interesting, odd material in here, and I do not know why I didn’t meet this text until this late in the game.

I want to pick out a couple of points which I’d love to have the time to explore further, hopefully as a preliminary set of thoughts to come back to later and to do something more significant with. (more…)

February 14, 2012

Book Review: On Not Knowing Greek – Virginia Woolf

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:21 pm
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Alright, this is technically more of an essay review than a book review, but never mind. Woolf’s short essay is included in a collection of her criticism published by Hesperus, and while the other essays collected in this brief volume do look interesting, I want to concentrate just on this one for today. There’s an electronic version of the text here, although the Greek quotations don’t come through.

I should start by pointing out that for Woolf to write an essay on not knowing Greek was actually rather pointed in 1925, when the piece was first published. At that stage, in terms of the education of women, while Newnham and Girton were now well established at Cambridge, and Jane Harrison, Eugenie Strong and their successors had amply demonstrated women’s competence in the field of classics, women still were not being given access to the same educational tools as men. Prep schools still put little boys into Latin at five or six, and Greek not long after, meaning that the girls who first encountered the languages later in the schoolroom were already many years behind their male peers. (This still happens – I first started Latin at age twelve, and then at Cambridge found myself in the company of young men who had started at six or seven, and even that difference created a confidence gap. Let’s not mention my Greek, which I first began during my gap year, meaning I lagged behind anyone who had had the chance to do GCSE, let alone A-level.)  For a female writer in the 1920s to talk about not knowing Greek was a markedly deliberate act, a spikier version of which appears in A Room of One’s Own. It’s a statement about privilege, about opportunity, about social status, about gender and about class.

That said, Woolf doesn’t follow the point that the title implicitly makes (and arguably she doesn’t need to). In fact, her implicit dialogue with her title continues since she demonstrates that she actually knows Greek well enough to pick apart the language and comment on “useless” translations. The ‘not knowing’ to which her title refers is instead the inability to know how the Greeks thought, to pick up the resonances that the original reader would have heard – the foreign language holds us in thrall, but we cannot fully grasp its power. The only way to get anywhere close is to get back to Greek in the original, and Woolf devotes several paragraphs at the end of the essay expounding on the inherent beauty of the language.

Her overall point fastens on a central tenet of early twentieth century ways of thinking about antiquity – that the Greeks reflect something somehow pure. The characters of plays who have since become familiar types, like the King and the Queen, have a freshness: “here we meet them before their emotions have been worn into uniformity”.  The Greeks become archetypal, even down to the language itself – “then, spare and bare as it is, no language can move more quickly, dancing, shaking, all alive, but controlled”. This balance of vitality and restraint is what draws Woolf to Greek, as does the sense of the Greeks’ paradoxical innocence: “their actions seem laden with beauty because they do not know that they are beautiful, have been born to their possessions, are no more self-conscious than children, and yet, all those thousands of years ago, in their little islands, know all that is to be known”.

The academic in me is, of course, brimming over with comments about unhelpful attitudes to the purity of Greece and how that fits into a cultural contruct of Greece vs. Rome and general ideas of moral and artistic integrity associated with Greek and how that fits into wider social interpretations of the classical world. But all of that scholarly background noise doesn’t detract from the beauty of Woolf’s own writing – her own sparseness of expression, her own engagement with the texts, and her own very deliberate proof that, actually, she does know Greek.

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