Monday, February 27, 2006

2006 UCL Classics Play

Euripides, Medea, UCL Classical Drama Society, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre

Performance seen: 11th February 2006

I have long harboured the view that, on the whole, student and youth theatre doesn't do well with Greek tragedy, a viewed formed by some truly awful stagings of Oedipus Rex I was subjected to around the turn of the century. Recent productions seem determined to strip me of my prejudices. First there was Oxford's excellent Orestes. And now along comes Graham Kirby's self-assured production of Medea, under the auspices of the newly-formed UCL Classical Drama Society.

Kirby's production design is simple, yet subtle and effective. A bare room is suggested with a couple of walls and some minimal furniture. An architrave shows scenes from Jason's legend, such as the battle with the Hydra, or the murder of Pelias. Clever lighting contributes to the mood.

Kirby has provided a new translation of the play. One presumes, given the pedigree of the production, that it is true to the Greek (bar reasonable additions such as including the name of Creon's daughter, Glauke, which does not feature in Euripides' text). More importantly, it is an excellent piece of English writing. The lines flow with poetry, and one hopes that Kirby will be able to make this translation available for others to stage.

But of course a production of Medea must stand and fall on the central performance. Here the there is a pure treat, as Dena Arya is incandescent as Medea. From the moment the play opens, as she stands with her back to the audience, bewailing her fate in Greek (only when she switches to English does she show her face), it is clear that something interesting is about to happen. Clad in black slip, housecoat and boots, she is a classic 1970s bitch, such as the likes of Kate O'Mara, Faye Dunaway and Glenda Jackson have built careers on, the sort of fascinating woman that an audience should abhor, but will find themselves rooting for. This is exactly how Medea should be (it is, after all, this very quality that sucks the Chorus into its complicity with her). Arya is careful never to go over the top - she is passionate, but always believable. And she is always worth watching, even when someone else is involved in a long speech, whether it be the killing looks thrown Jason's way, or the almost sexual enjoyment she takes in hearing the fates of Glauke and Creon. Bar a short clip on The Late Show, I was not fortunate enough to see Diana Rigg's performance in 1993/94, which Kirby takes as the gold standard for the role. But I can say that Arya's is one of the best Medeas that I have seen, and definitely better than Fiona Shaw's boggle-eyed interpretation from 2001. Her final departure (perhaps the only deus ex machina in Euripidean tragedy that makes perfect sense) is presented as apotheosis, a notion I first saw in Phylidda Lloyd's 1991 production at Manchester's Royal Exchange.

It is hardly a slight to say that none of the rest of the cast quite measure up to Arya. But, after taking a while to warm up in the role, Adam Greves as Jason very nearly gives as good as he gets. Certainly, his performance underlines the fact that, for all his apparent reasonableness and rationality, Jason is an arse of the highest order. His arguments that he has chosen to marry again out of a desire to protect Medea and her children are so transparently self-serving and specious that it is almost unnecessary for Medea to tear them to shreds.

The other performance that deserves noting is Laurie Wilks as the Nurse. Kirby warns in his foreword to the programme that "elements of what might be called 'camp' have crept in", and so the audience is presented with a cross-dressing nurse, played by a man in woman's clothing, with the Tutor played by a woman dressed as a man. It shouldn't work. But it does, because Wilks imposes himself on the role with such utter conviction that the audience has no choice but to suspend any disbelief. All trace of camp are utterly banished, along with any inappropriate humour. The cross-dressing is exploited for one joke, but that is left to the curtain call.

The more naturalistic a production of Greek tragedy is, the more problematic the Chorus can be. In this staging, the Chorus are clad in black leotards and strips of white gauze. They enter masked, and periodically over the rest of the play they remove and replace their masks. Presumably there was meant to be a pattern to that, but I'm afraid I couldn't quite work out why. Yet, just when I was about to write off the Chorus as an element of the production that didn't quite work, that they didn't quite react enough to the events they were observing, suddenly the choreography gave real power to the way the actual (offstage) infanticide was played out. And I should add that my partner, whilst thinking that the Chorus could have looked better, was much more impressed by them than I was, considereding their speech and choreography to have been excelelnt throughout.

One might find a few elements to suggest didn't work. It might not have been necessary to underline the Messengers' account of Creon and Glauke's deaths with a mime of it from the actors, though other productions in the past (such as the Royal Exchange one mentioned above) have thought that it was. And the costumes of the Messengers, as typical Cockney barrow boys a la My Fair Lady might be considered a bit odd.

But then one thinks of Arya's performance or Kirby's translation, and nothing much else matters. Perhaps it's only the Oedipus Rex that students can't do. I await being proved wrong on that score with interest.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

King's Greek Play 2006

Aristophanes, Women Take Power (Ecclesiazusae), King's College London Greek Play, Greenwood Theatre

Performance seen: February 9th 2006

Last year, as I reported, University College London chose to produce Aristophanes' Knights, one of the comic writer's earlier plays, before he hit the peak of his form. This year, King's have chosen to stage Ecclesiazusae (usually translated as 'Women At The Assembly'), one of his last plays from when he had, to be frank, gone off the boil a bit. It is a play that presents certain challenges. Aristophanes was moving at a brisk trot down the road that led from Old to New Comedy, which creates something that is up to a point neither one genre or the other (hence Ecclesiazusae is sometimes labelled Middle Comedy). And the structure rather falls apart in the second half in the way that some earlier Aristophanes (e.g. Lysistrata) threatens to but never quite does.

In any case, I wasn't sure what to expect of Aristophanes in Greek - up to now all the Athenian drama I've seen in the original language has been tragedy. It's certainly the case that my usual instinct with Aristophanes, that one should throw out the actual text, does not apply when presenting in Greek. But would the whole thing be funny if one can't follow what is actually said, and is reliant upon surtitles?

The King's production's solution to the structural problem is, to a degree, to try to make a virtue of it, by emphasizing the episodic nature, though, in contrast to previous King's Greek plays, there is no interval, perhaps in case this would make the play too disjointed. I am unsure whether this tries the audience's patience a little too much.

In other ways, however, an attempt is made to grant unity to the play. The disappearance of the central character Praxagora in the middle is dealt with by finding ways of reminding the audience that she has created the society in which the later incidents play out, either by hanging her portrait, or by (slightly oddly) having her silently arm-wrestling, or by giving her some of the Chorus' lines in the final scene.

The solution to the language problem is to turn to the heritage of the silent movie. Rather than surtitles that summarize 50-70% of the dialogue, a small number of captions are used, as in pre-sound cinema. The surtitles are integrated into the performance as a whole, rather than being an additional distraction from the action (with one joke where the captions are in Greek and the actor speaks English). Something is of course lost in such an approach, but it would probably be lost anyway. What is gained is an increased emphasis on the visual aspects of the production, with the spoken text becoming like the music score, an accompaniment to what we are seeing, rather than its raison d'etre. Inevitably this pushes the production towards greater use of slapstick comedy. This shows particularly in the choreography of the Chorus, from whose ranks are drawn minor roles such as the Women who discuss with Praxagora how to take over the Athenian Assembly. The captions are also used to distinguish between the more traditional sections of the play, that strongly feature the Chorus, where the captions have visual illustrations and are arranged to look like artworks in their own right, and the more 'modern' parts that eliminate the Chorus, where traditional text-only captions are used, often with the sort of frames familiar from silents.

The silent movie motif is repeated in the costuming, where Chaplin and the Keystone Kops are referenced. This then leads to a 1920s theme in the production design, which seems to have found Dadaism via Art Deco (a style similar to that used by UCL in their very successful Lysistrata from 1999). Thus one sometimes has the feeling with the King's production of watching not only a silent movie, but a Surrealist one, where, for instance, the facial hair sported by the women as they disguise themselves as men (disguises also indicated by the simple device of wearing trousers, removed - offstage - when the disguises are dropped) apparently influenced by Salvador Dali. I should not have been surprised had the production chosen to rearrange the order of the later episodes of the play - the episodic nature certainly permits such an approach.

It might be pushing the 1920s theme a bit too far to see in Praxagora's army uniform and the military march of the Chorus past her a reference to Mussolini, though other more recent fascist dictatorships are surely intended. But clearly the motif is at the forefront of the one moment of utter comic genius, the staging of the Hag scene, where a hag and a young girl, and then later two hags (two completely different hags from the first in the text, but sensibly this is reduced to two hags overall), compete for the sexual favours of a young man (according to Praxagora's new order, the old and ugly must be sexually serviced before the young and beautiful). Brilliantly, the Greek text here is set to the music of George Gershwin, and the whole scene just works.

That is probably the most successful idea that production has. Some other ideas are not quite so effective - for instance, in a play where women disguising themselves as men is central to the plot, it seems to me distracting to have some of the unequivocally male roles played by women. The lack of props weakens the scene where a householder is getting his property ready for communal division - the miming of movement of household objects doesn't quite work. And the problem of how to represent Blepyrus' onstage defecation is never quite solved. But it is better to have ideas and for some of them not to work than to have no ideas at all.

As is ever the way with this sort of production, some of the performances are better than others. I shan't single out the less good, but Nicola McCabe's confident approach to Praxagora deserves mention.

Overall, I should say that this is an interesting staging, which tries to deal innovatively with the problems of presenting comedy in Greek, and of this particular play. It will certainly remain in my mind, even if, on the whole, the production delivered mild amusement rather than belly laughs. At the very least all concerned deserve praise for trying something a little different.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Tidying some old posts on another blog, I came across a couple of posts with pictures of objects relevant to this blog, so I thought I'd post them here just for reference.

First of all, something on this picture, now in the Guildhall Art Gallery.

Clytemnestra After the Murder (1882), by Hon. John Collier (1850-1939).

Most reproductions don't quite catch how much blood she has on her - this does become a lot more clear if you see the original. That red isn't part of the dress' pattern.

When I first posted the picture, there was a debate over the femininity, or lack of it, of the model for Clytemnestra. I subsequently come across the following in the Guildhall Art Gallery's booklet on Victorian Pictures:

While this dramatic image generally reflects Collier's interest in the theatre, it may have direct origins in a performance of Aeschylus's Agamemnon given on June 3 1880 by Oxford undergraduates at Balliol ... In this the part of Clytemnestra was played by a man - perhaps the source for Collier's unsettling, muscular figure.

So, there you are.

Then, here is the Great Torc from the Snettisham Hoards, which is on display in Room 50 of the British Museum:

An article on the Hoards from Current Archaeology can be found here, whilst here and here are two pages from the British Museum's website, one on the Hoards and one on the Great Torc.

(Click on the photos for sources and more information.)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A man called Boris

So that was Boris Johnson and the Dream of Rome. I've not in the past had a very high opinion of the MP for Henley-on-Thames - he's tended to come across as a bit of a buffoon, and growing up in the years 1979-1997 have left me naturally antagonistic towards the Conservative Party. However, I may need to reassess my judgment of him. I don't agree with everything he says in this interview, but he talks more sense about Higher Education than just about any Education Minister or Shadow in the past twenty-five years.

But what of Boris the television historian? Let's start with the less good. It has been pointed out that Johnson takes quite a traditional view of the Roman empire. But he read Greats in Balliol College Oxford in the early 1980s, and has spent the subsequent time as a journalist and politician rather than at the cutting edge of scholarship, so what do you expect? He does have a good selection of leading academics as talking heads and advisors, but no doubt had the final say.

Of more concern is the way soundbites tend to give an over-simplified impression. Johnson rightly points out that the Roman empire did not have to worry about democracy, but that does not mean, as he goes on to suggest, that the emperor didn't need to worry about the common people of Gaul or elsewhere. No government, be it democracy or military dictatorship, can rule without the overall consent of those ruled. That consent may be obtained by various methods, of which fear is one. But any ruler who thinks that he can ignore public opinion entirely will face the fate of Charles I or Louis XVI.

The canard that the Romans were devoid of racism reappears. You only have to read Juvenal's Third Satire, and the vile racial slurs against the Greeks therein, to realize this is utter nonsense. What was different in the Roman empire was that the dynamic of race operated differently, and it was not such a bar to progress through society as it has been in most European empires. (As Niall Ferguson has shown, some people within the British empire tried to emulate this, and educated Indians, Jamaicans, etc., but were thwarted by the attitudes of ex-pats in the colonies, who imposed a glass ceiling. The result was the worst possible situation, a highly educated native elite with no outlet within the imperial structures for their ambition.) However, as Johnson knows, one had to be careful how much one allowed one's origins to show. One progressed within the empire by being Roman, and too much African-ness or Greekness could be an impediment. Even the African emperor, Septimius Severus, was said to have sent his sister away from Rome because her inability to speak Latin was an embarrassment. (I don't actually believe this story - a daughter of a family with senatorial connections, and therefore potentially a senator's wife, would surely have a decent education in the Latin language - but the important fact is that the story was told.)

Sometimes, Johnson tries to pull a fast one in front of his audience. Much play is made by him that the empire was run by a mere 150 officials in the imperial household. But, as Sander Evans tries to point out to Johnson, this is only a portion of the administrative structure of the empire - to this one needs to add the local elites in the provinces whom the emperor got to do much of the tax-collecting, etc., for him. Undoubtedly the bureaucracy of the Roman empire was smaller than that of modern states, if for no other reason than that it had far less to do, but Johnson has exaggerated to emphasize his point. Similarly he overlooks the subtle but important distinction between worship of a living emperor, which emperors tended to disdain, and sacrifices to the emperor's genius or numen (spirit).

But to a degree these are quibbles. Johnson's basic argument is that the EU attempts to unite Europe as Rome once did, but is failing. Johnson is not, at heart, a Eurosceptic, despite attempts by both pro- and anti-Europeans to paint him as such. He clearly embraces the ideals of European unity and peace, but is sceptical about whether this can actually be achieved. What he believes is that, in order to understand why the EU is failing, one must understand why Rome succeeded. At the end of his investigation, his conclusion is that Rome is not necessarily the best model for European integration. He also rightly draws attention to the problems of getting nations to buy into a pan-European ideal when they still venerate such nationalist heroes as Arminius, Vercingetorix or Boudicca.

I pretty much agree with this. It is all too easy for modern westerners to be naive about the Roman empire, to cherry-pick the good bits and to overlook the less pleasant aspects, such as the fact that it was a military dictatorship. It is to Johnson's credit that he resists such an approach, and suggests that the Roman empire came as a package, and worked because of the unsavoury aspects as well as the attractive ones.

There are a couple of points that Johnson misses that would strengthen his case. Where the EU attempts to create a 'European' culture that stands apart from any one national unit, Rome exported the culture of one single part of Europe to the rest of the continent. More recent attempts to place on single culture in a hegemonic position in Europe have been vigorously resisted by other nations. (Many still resist the EU on the assumption that it is a cloak for French, or German, control of Europe.) It is also worth noting that Roman citizenship gained much of its appeal from its exclusivity. It was achievable, but, until the emperor Caracalla enfranchised every free adult male in AD 212 (as a tax raising action as much as anything), it was not held by everyone, and so it had prestige. EU citizenship, granted to anyone born in Europe, lacks that.

The plea for Turkish admittance into Europe with which Johnson ends his programme is strictly speaking off topic, and of course is something in which Johnson has a special interest (regrettably I only saw a bit of his programme on the recent Turks exhibition at the Royal Academy). But it's also the best bit of the programme. Though Johnson is more dismissive than I would be of continuity of romanitas in the west after Romulus Augustulus' deposition, he is entirely right to draw attention to the fact that the Roman empire continued in the east for another thousand years, and this section allows Charlotte Roueche to make sound points about the western attempt to dismiss the claims of the eastern empire through the invention of terms like 'Byzantine' - western Europe wanted exclusive claim to the inheritance of Rome. As Johnson highlights, the Ottoman empire also claimed the inheritance of Rome, as almost every European nation has. That in itself is not an argument for admitting Turkey into the EU, but Johnson makes a passionate (and right) case that excluding Turkey is based on racism and ignorance, and a retrograde step for Europe. (One wonders whether Johnson intended any irony by recording his vox pop segments showing prejudices about Turkey being illiberal and barbaric in Germany.)

Overall, I would give this programme a B. Pretty good, but not fantastic. But when many television history programmes struggle to achieve a D, that's not too bad, and I certainly wouldn't object to Johnson doing more programmes like this. Let's hope his political career continues to give him time to do so.

"Is this the face ...?"

I've just caught up with last Thursday's Twenty Minutes from BBC Radio 3. In the performance break of a concert focussing on 'Shostakovich and His Heroes', Bettany Hughes, everybody's first choice these days for Greek history, gets to talk some more on Helen of Troy. Fortunately she is not looking at the evidence for the 'historical' Helen, as she has in her book and recent Channel 4 programme (my thoughts on the programme can be found here), but pursuing what to my mind is the more profitable seam of Helen-as-icon, in this case in the artistic tradition of Britain.

The most interesting bit was David Lan talking about how he had dealt with the problems of bringing Helen on stage in a production of Dr Faustus. As Lan notes, Helen represents an ideal, the most beautiful woman in the world. Represented solely by the written word, the reader can construct her appearance according to their own taste in female beauty. But once you put an actress on stage, you have something concrete and real, that may not accord with the audience's expectations. For me, this is most obvious in Michael Cacoyannis' otherwise excellent The Trojan Women, where Irene Pappas' Helen matches far less well with my idea of what a beautiful woman should look like than Vanessa Redgrave's radiant Andromache.

One interesting way of solving this is actually to be found in a Doctor Who story, 'The Myth Makers', where Helen is spoken of, but never actually appears. Lan's solution in Dr Faustus is ingenious. Instead of bringing Helen on stage, he had Faustus catch sight of his own reflection.

You can still catch the programme for the next twenty-four hours on

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Robert Graves - is he all bad?

Browsing the Internet, I came across this piece in the Times Literary Supplement, by my former colleague Nick Lowe. Written with his usual engaging exuberance, it is ostensibly a review of Nigel Spivey's Songs on Bronze: Greek Myths Retold, but spends quite a lot of its time in an attack on Robert Graves' The Greek Myths. A shorter review in The Guardian by Mary Beard also takes a swipe at Graves. I'm grateful for Lowe's observations on Graves' use of assistants, which will make me reassess translations such as the Suetonius he did for Penguin Classics, but I'm not sure I agree with his judgment upon The Greek Myths.

Both Lowe and Beard draw attention to Graves' attempts to explain the myths. These are coloured by being the work of a man who grew up when some people (for the most part males with romantic notions about the 'noble savage') genuinely believed in the idea of a prehistoric matriarchy, swept away by patriarchal structures. They are, of course, nonsense, and even as a schoolboy I knew to give them no credence. However, by focussing on Graves' commentaries, Beard and Lowe give the impression that they represent most people's experience of the work. I'm not at all sure that this is true.

I rather suspect that most non-academics' experience of The Greek Myths centres not on the interpretations of myth, but upon the narratives of the legends. Many readers, indeed, have no choice but to experience the work in this way, as they will be reading one of the condensed versions (e.g. this), where the abridgment is achieved by the simple expedient of leaving out all the explanatory material. Taken on this level, one can see why someone like Margaret Atwood might describe The Greek Myths as 'crucial'. Because there really isn't anything else quite like it for providing a narrative summary of the mythological stories, together with variant versions, unless you go back to the works of the Edwardian A.R. Hope Moncrieff or the Victorian Thomas Bulfinch, both of whom tend to record only one 'canonical' version. Despite certain oddities of presentation, such as the fate of Agamemnon being dealt with before the chapters on the Trojan War, rather than after, as one might expect, Graves has an accessibility the earlier works lack.

For my own part, I would probably these days first consult Cassell's Dictionary of Classical Mythology by Jenny March, or the Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (a translation and abridgment of Pierre Grimal's Dictionnaire de la Mythologie Grecque et Romaine) if I needed to do any mythological research. But both of those, as Lowe notes, are alphabetic reference works. I would soon turn to Graves for narrative, and all three books were within reach as I was writing my review of Gemmell's Troy.

If Graves is ever to be replaced, then it needs to be by a work that matches or improves upon what Graves does well, providing narratives of mythology with all variants, and the original sources (even if Graves lifted those from elsewhere), ideally placed into a historical context, so one knows which sources are earliest, and discards what Graves does badly (i.e. the commentary), and does all this in a mass market edition. I've not read Songs on Bronze, but from the reviews (and a brief browse in the British Museum bookshop) it is apparent that this is not that work. Rather, it is a novelistic retelling of certain stories that does not admit of variation. Nor does it appear from a brief browse of the pages available on Amazon that Timothy Gantz's Early Greek Myth is the Graves replacement classicists hope for, though the compendious collection of references therein suggests that I need a copy on my shelves.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Books with classical themes

The latest issue of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, popped through my letterbox on Friday. In there are a couple of reviews of books that I also have reviewed over recent months, and which are relevant to the themes of this blog.

First up is Susan Peak's review of Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow, by David Gemmell, which I reviewed, at considerably greater length, for Diverse Books. I'd like to quote Peak's penultimate paragraph in toto:

While the book is indeed well-written, and with good characters, it is curiously lacking in plot. Not much actually happens during the story and, although it is set in the time of Troy, it is not at all clear how close to the siege the story is at the end of this volume. It certainly doesn't happen here. So the book is a little slow, and has also a faint sense of pointlessness - why, exactly, are we being told the story of these various people? What is their significance? It might have helped to have a brief summary of the Trojan war and its key characters in some sort of foreword - the historical novel equivalent of a map, perhaps. (And an actual map would also have been useful.) The book failed to evoke any real sense of reading about a very different culture - there is more alienness in Patrick O'Brian's stories of Napoleonic naval warfare than here.

Peak may have a point about the lack of plot, but her comment about the need for a foreword suggests that she's missed the point of what Gemmell is trying to do, perhaps through a lack of familiarity with the mythology. As I noted, Gemmell's is a pretty radical 're-imagining' of the Trojan cycle. Including a summary of how the canonical version of the myth would be pointless, as Gemmell isn't following that script. To include anything else would be to ask him to give his plot developments away. The comment on the map, however, derives from the fact that Peak is reviewing a proof copy, as the published version I received does include a map, albeit one which can be criticized for inadequacy (some locations where crucial events take place are not located on it). As for her final comment, I can see her point, in that the characters do sometimes seem to behave like twenty-first century AD humans -on the other hand, I did think Gemmell did a good job of making the inhabitants of the Bronze Age real human beings rather than archaeological abstractions.

(I should perhaps point out, in case anyone thinks sour grapes may be involved in my reaction to Peak's review, that I was offered this book for Vector, but had to turn it down as I'd already agreed to do the Diverse Books review.)

Elsewhere in the same issue, Niall Harrison, who in his role as Reviews Editor of Strange Horizons asked me to review Jeffrey M. Ford's The Cosmology of the Wider World , a book where the central character is a minotaur, writes a review of that selfsame work that is far more perceptive and thoughtful that what I have turned in for him.