Classically Inclined

January 16, 2017

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus – Tony Harrison

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 2:26 pm
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Last weekend I was very lucky to get to a very rare performance of Tony Harrison’s Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at the Finborough Theatre. I’d never heard of the Finborough before, and before I get any further in this post, the performance is running until the 28th and there are still tickets left at the time of writing.  If you can get there, do. The cast are superb.

Trackers has been performed precisely three times – once at Delphi in 1988, once at the National Theatre in 1990, and now at the Finborough. It is, as we are reminded, almost thirty years since it was last staged. You’d expect it to have aged. It hasn’t. Given the specificity of its targets, this is rather worrying.

Trackers begins with the dig of Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrhynchus, the city of the sharp-nosed fish, from whose rubbish dumps we have recovered amazing amounts of papyri and otherwise unknown texts. Grenfell is nervous and unwell, searching desperately for fragments of a lost Sophocles play which he says the god Apollo is urging him to find. He retires to his tent, overwrought – only for Apollo to possess him, and for us to segue, unexpectedly, into a satyr play of our own, with satyrs led by Silenus tracking down the play , discovering the god’s lost cattle, the baby Hermes and the discovery of the lyre. Apollo is delighted at this find, and pays off the satyrs in gold while promising that they will never have access to the sort of high art that he can now create. Having come to the end of the satyr play structure, the shift into a fearful messenger speech from Silenus about the flaying of Marsyas for daring to approach ‘high art’ is, frankly, harrowing. So is the remainder of the play, as the satyrs wander, outcast, wondering what to do, how to live, how to survive, until they end up as the homeless on the South Bank. Silenus makes a final appeal to the audience, asking if there is anyone who can help interpret the scraps of papyrus… before finding a voice and standing up on the ‘tragic’ stage, where no satyr has stood before, to shout. And curtain.

Is there a doctor…some don from Queen’s
who can tell the rest of us what all this means?

As is probably clear, Trackers is about high art and low art, about who gets to make art and who has access to it. It is also about the British class system. Apollo speaks with obvious received pronunciation, the satyrs have broad Yorkshire accents and clogs. It is also about the politics of classics, although that strand is obviously woven into the concern with class – white scholars from Oxford have access to the papyri and say what it means, the Egyptian fellaheen are the ones who actually get their hands dirty; Apollo’s high tragedy gets preserved safely while the mass culture satyr play gets dispersed into scraps; the satyrs aren’t allowed to go ‘outside’ their genre, which gets pushed down, down, down, while high art not only gets pushed up, but also becomes sanitising.

Wherever the losers and the tortured scream
the lyres will be playing the Marsyas theme.
You’ll hear the lyres playing behind locked doors
where men flay their fellows for some abstract cause.

Who gets to do classics? Who gets access to culture? Who gets the privilege? The context that generated this play, the Britain of the late 1980s with the closure of the coal mines, the rise in unemployment, the rise of the City and the fall of the working class, seems to be one reason that this play first of all didn’t get performed more, and secondly why it didn’t get performed again. But watching it last week, it still felt frighteningly contemporary and relevant – not least because of the current battleground in classical studies over whether the subject is an enabler or a limiter in terms of race and class. We know we have problems with both these fields in terms of what academic professors look like; the wider implications of the abuse of the subject are more frightening. Questions about who gets to own classics and who gets to play the lyre are, it seems, still very much up for heated debate. As they should be, given that the stakes are as high as they are.

There is, of course, the slight disconnect at a play which was only ever performed at Delphi and the National (and now the Finborough) castigating people for limiting access to things. Harrison knows his Greek drama, which is why I have come away from the performance with a much richer sense of how an ancient chorus might have worked – this production features some inspired clog-dancing sequences in hobnailed boots on board during the satyr play section which are glorious to watch. Yet for this message, this message, to be stuck inside the pages of the scripts and not to be seen, even now, unless you are one of the lucky fifty who can get a Finborough ticket on a given night or even know the Finborough exists? It feels as if there is something vaguely fitting for Trackers to be experiencing a similar fate to the fragments of the Oxyrhynchus piles, although I hope that this revival leads to it being staged much more frequently than it has been. The language alone deserves that.

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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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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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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June 7, 2012

Feminism & Classics VI – Brock University, Canada

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:25 am
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As you will have picked up from my last post, I spent the week before the Jubilee weekend in Canada, at Feminism and Classics VI, held at Brock University in Ontario. I think I have already mentioned elsewhere that I attended Feminism and Classics V, where I presented the paper which recently came out as the Fortunata article, so I knew what I was letting myself in for – four days of really good intellectual discussion, some forthright but supportive and helpful criticism of my paper, and an opportunity to see a lot of the people who I hadn’t seen since I left the US.

I’m delighted to say that my expectations were wonderfully met, and I had a fabulous time. You may have caught some of the live tweeting I managed to do before I lost my conference folder in which I had carefully stored my username and password for accessing the university wifi. I felt less happy livetweeting Feminism and Classics than I did tweeting the Classical Association – not because of participant hostility to the technology (there were far more people taking notes on laptops, iPads and so on in each panel audience), but because the content didn’t seem to get such a strong positive reaction from the Twitter audience. I don’t know if this was due to all those nebulous things-outside-the-internet which mean predicting response to livetweeting is very difficult to do, or whether the conference’s subject matter was perceived as somehow ‘less interesting’. But as I was finding it less rewarding than the CA tweeting, I didn’t chase up a fresh log-in when I mislaid my original one.

If the reason for lower Twitter response was a sense that this material was ‘less interesting’, then I can only say that I fervently disagree. When I saw the first draft of the conference program, my immediate reaction was ‘brain candy’. The vast majority of papers were pushing some interesting theoretical and content boundaries, reading things in new ways, proposing new theories, opening up new frontiers of knowledge to me. The environment of the conference was also exactly as I remembered it, although this time I had the benefit of knowing a lot more people, having the PhD under my belt and feeling a lot more confident that I knew what I was doing. The atmosphere was much more like that of the Classical Association than the APA, but even then there’s an extra level of collegiality and general friendliness that I certainly really relished the first time I attended. This is the sixth Feminism and Classics VI, which is held every four years; there’s a little history on the Women’s Classical Caucus webpage, but I think there’s something about the origin of the meeting as an independent movement that has contributed to its unique feel.

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August 26, 2011

Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 5:16 am
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I was lucky enough to see the recent production of Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean which was put on by the National Theatre a couple of weeks ago. There are several reasons this was a stroke of luck, not least of which the fact that it’s arguable if Ibsen ever actually intended Emperor and Galilean to be performed in the first place. If you know any of his other plays, like Hedda Gabler or A Doll’s House, you’ll be aware that they’re mainly ‘drawing room drama’ – that is, they take place in one room, in a single set on stage, and that the plot is mainly played out through domestic interaction. In Emperor and Galilean, Ibsen dispenses completely with the restrictions forced upon him by the practicalities of a ninteenth century theatre and lets his imagination run wild. We’re thrown between Constantinople, the Gallic frontier of the Roman empire, Athens and plenty of places in between, eventually ending up in Persia. The National’s stage was used amazingly well for this, managing to capture the vast range of sense of place that Ibsen wanted to convey. Wikipedia informs me that the play was performed in Leipzig in 1896 and in Oslo in 1903, but goodness only knows how they managed the staging. It says quite a lot that the National’s revival is basically the first serious production (bar a radio play version) since Ibsen wrote the thing.

The other reason that this play particularly interests me is that it does classical reception on a not terribly popular period, but with quite a fertile subject. The Emperor of the play’s title is one of the fruitier Roman emperors, who has come down to us with the moniker Julian the Apostate. He was the last non-Christian emperor to rule the Roman empire, although he started off as a Christian; he seems to have converted (for want of a better word) while studying in Athens, at which point he also got himself inducted into the Eleusinian Mysteries (and why not) – something that Ibsen’s play sort of alludes to, except in the form of magicians and potions and incantations.

So, we have Ibsen, living in a Christian social context, writing a play about someone who made a big effort to destablise the prominence of Christianity and its socio-political dominance. We also have a protagonist who is, shall we say, clearly A Bit Disturbed and Inconsistent, although to be fair I think Ibsen does make that a bit more about Julian and his character than paganism. Despite saying that he would like everything to be lovely and people to just be nice, Julian does have a habit of deciding that people are plotting him against him and he’s going to have them imprisoned, tortured and killed, as well as some other rather questionable moral decisions, including choosing to set fire to a church in which people are sheltering from his soldiers. Now, in fairness, the Christian side of the community isn’t entirely without blame here, because some of their young men previously set fire to a temple of Helios that Julian was attempting to renovate. However, the second half of the play, which is all about Julian after he becomes emperor, basically gets Very Messy as Julian becomes more and more paranoid and reacts more and more outrageously with less and less justification to people he feels are betraying him. (more…)

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