Sunday, January 13, 2008

Katie Mitchell's Trojan Women

Euripides, Women of Troy

National Theatre
Performance seen: 12th January 2008

Katie Mitchell's new production of Don Taylor's version of Women of Troy (I avoid the term 'translation', as Taylor did not work from the original Greek) has received a number of very favourable reviews (e.g. in The Independent, Time Out, and the Evening Standard). So why didn't I like it?

The production begins with the Chorus (all given individual names in the programme) already on stage. Immediately the prologue, featuring Poseidon and Athena (a rare case of a deus ex machina at the beginning of a play), is cut. I wasn't too surprised by this - Michael Cacoyannis' film version does it, and modern productions can be uncomfortable with actually seeing the gods. But it changes the tone of the piece. Euripides' play is a warning against hubris - the destruction the Greeks have visited upon Troy will be visited on them in turn. This was an important subject of debate in fifth century Athens - Thucydides says the same in the context of the fate of the island of Melos in 416 BC, the event that is often thought to be the allegorical inspiration for Euripides' play. Removing the prologue makes the play an examination of the fate of women in a defeated city, with the Trojan women as victims whose abusers have no signalled comeuppance.

That's not where my problem comes, though. The women are in 1930s ballgowns, looking for all the world as if Hercule Poirot is about to summon them and expose the murderer. I don't have an issue with such modern dress productions, and putting aside the Balkans/Afghanistan/Iraq contemporary war setting that is often found in modern productions of Greek tragedy is refreshing. But these people have had their city and families destroyed around them, so I would expect that the ballgowns would at least be ripped and dirty. But, whilst a couple of the Chorus have bruised arms, their ballgowns are pristine, their make-up perfect, not a hair out of place. This undercuts the play's horror - I felt that, even in the pyrotechnic destruction of the set at the end, Mitchell's production never quite conveys the calamity that has happened to its subjects. As Michael Billington notes in The Guardian, there's something missing from the emotional landscape of the production - only towards the end did I feel it starts to connect with the heart of the text.

I agree with Billington that the words are key. So it is a shame that the dialogue is often difficult to hear. The cast don't project as well as they might, and they have to compete with a constant low hum that is meant to represent the sounds of the docks where the production is set. The action takes place inside a two-level warehouse. The Chorus are at stage level, but above are the offices where Helen is imprisoned. She is constantly seen prowling to and fro, a device which keeps her in mind, but it often distracting.

Though I can be enthusiastic for Anastasia Hille's Andromache, who shows the appropriate level of panic, I'm much less so about some of the other performances. Kate Duchêne's Hecuba seems anodyne in comparison to, say, Katherine Hepburn in Caccoyanis' version. Talthybius' role is split between two actors, both of whom seem quite muted.

And then there's Sinead Matthews as Cassandra. I generally find depictions of Cassandra unsatisfactory. I think this is because so often they try to explain the character in terms of modern psychoanalysis, and I don't think Cassandra's madness can be explained that way. She is insane because she is cursed by Apollo, so that she sees the future clearly, but cannot get anyone to believe her. Reading that through a diagnosis of 'manic depression' doesn't always help. Matthews is hampered by having to compete with shouting and fire alarms, but even so she could be clearer. And I knew almost immediately that she would demonstrate her madness by ripping all her clothes off (similarly, I was not surprised when Helen ended up in nothing but her knickers).

There's also one oddity. Before each choral ode, there is dancing, which beings with muted music, before being overwhelmed by the sounds of the Jazz Age. For me, this device (which Mitchell apparently also used in her production of Iphigeneia at Aulis) just doesn't work (see the review in The Stage, which characterizes these as a distraction). When most of the production is so naturalistic, impressionist moments like this are confusing (and if the production is prepared to embrace impressionism, why ditch the gods?). Further confusion is added when departed characters such as Cassandra and Andromache come back on stage, though I can see the point of reintroducing Menelaus and Helen, to underline the assumption of most productions that Helen will seduce her husband and escape punishment (though the very best production I ever saw, that of Andrei Serban in 1992, concluded Helen's scene with her being stripped, raped by a bear and executed).

This is far from being the worst production of a Greek tragedy that I've ever seen, but it is one of the weaker versions of Trojan Women. But perhaps I want something different to everyone else when I see a Greek tragedy. And this didn't deliver it.

Women of Troy is on until 27th February.


I went to the Barbican's exhibition Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now. I went primarily to see the Graeco-Roman stuff. Actually, there wasn't that much in this section that was new to me, but then I've seen this sort of thing before. And I regret the absence of the funniest Roman erotica I've seen - oil-lamps in the shape of a satyr, where you light the end of the penis.

Although I would have laid out the sleeping hermaphrodite so that it was approached from behind, making the male genitalia a surprise, the exhibition makes good use of the space available. The only thing I could complain about would be the reconstructions of the secret cabinets from Victorian museums. Not only were these dimly lit, making the labels hard to read, but in one most of the objects were described as 'undated'. Fair enough, they can't be tied down to a precise century, but they could at least have said what culture (e.g. 'Roman') they came from.

As for the rest, there were amusing bits, such as the surrealist happening organized by Jean-Jacques Lebel, which involved two models being spanked to 'La Marseillaise' (and I may never look at a leek the same again). I was interested to find a Renaissance painting of Minerva, Lavinia Fontana's Minerva in the Act of Dressing. This is the only example I can immediately think of where this particular goddess is used in an erotic image.

There were signs warning that the room you were about to enter contained images of sexual activity, which we mocked. But then I did find the Mapplethorpe photographs disturbing - not so much the photo with a bullwhip up his bottom (do not click if you are disturbed by such images), but one of a clamped and bleeding penis. I don't particularly like Jeff Koons' erotic work, most of which seems to be an excuse for him to be photographed having sex with an Italian porn star, but his work can't be excluded from an exhibition like this. And I was delighted to find that, when bored with landscapes, J.M.W. Turner would dash off some porn.

Seduced is on until January 27th.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Changing one's mind

Happy 2008 to anyone still actually reading this. I realize it's been over a month since I last posted here. If I was the sort of person who made New Year's resolutions, then I'd probably promise to make more posts this year. But don't hold your breath.

I got pointed to a webpage where 165 people were asked the question, "What have you changed your mind about? Why?" The contributors are mostly scientists of one description or another, though there's a piece by James O'Donnell that explains why he no longer cheers for the Romans, which I recommend. Reading all the contributions, I found myself thinking about what I've changed my mind about over the years. I certainly believe that the ability to change one's mind in the face of new evidence, or new interpretations of old evidence, is an important characteristic of an honest thinker.

Like O'Donnell, I have changed my mind about the Romans, and especially about the Empire. Once I believed that Augustus was a great man, who rescued Roman civilization from the chaos of the Late Republic, but no longer. Certainly I still believe that he was a highly effective ruler in terms of what he sought to achieve, and for some people life was better after he came to power - provincials undoubtedly appreciated the end of the licensed extortion and asset-stripping that characterized most provincial administration under the Late Republic. But it shouldn't be forgotten that what Augustus introduced was a military dictatorship, an inherently corrupt form of government. The likes of Caligula, Nero and Commodus were inevitable products of the system, not aberrations. And all emperors, even the 'good' ones like Augustus and Trajan, curtailed individual rights and suppressed, often ruthlessly, freedom of thought and expression. Just ask Ovid.

What else? There was certainly a time when, had you told me that there was a difference between sex and gender, I'd have looked at you as if you were mad. But then I didn't know any people who had refused to allow the sex they were born into to determine how they would behave. This year I wrote a short paper for my students explaining exactly why the two aren't identical, and why biological sex doesn't necessarily dictate gender roles (in which I used Ovid's myth of Iphis and Ianthe, just before I found out that Ali Smith had written a Canongate Myth volume around the same legend); that paper is now going to be available to all the students on the course throughout the country.

One thing I've really come to comprehend better this year, and emphasize more to students, is that there's no such thing as 'Roman attitudes'. Where once I would happily have said 'the Romans believed ...', and at the most pointed out that this meant élite male Romans, now I underline that one would have been every bit as likely to find a range of different opinions if one conducted a straw poll in the Roman Forum as if one did the same on Oxford Street. Take, for instance, Roman attitudes to sex. The HBO/BBC Rome series (of which I got the complete boxed set for Christmas, which means I really ought to get around to watching it some time) presented a Roman society in which people were happily having sex all the time. Just before the series aired Tom Holland wrote in The Times criticizing this - the Romans weren't so liberal at all, but rather prudish. I blogged that at the time, saying that I thought Holland overstated and oversimplified the case, and pointing to Ovid as an example of a different attitude to sex (basically, in the Amores and Ars Amatoria, the message is if the opportunity comes along, take it, and here's how one maximizes those opportunities). Holland's not wrong to say that Romans held the opinions he ascribes to them. What is wrong is the implication that this is how all Romans thought. Ovid and Cicero did not think the same about sex, anymore than Juvenal and Hadrian thought the same about Greeks. All one can do is point to general trends of thought, whilst highlighting that these were not universal. Which is actually quite liberating for a teacher - asked to reconcile two apparently contradictory attitudes found in ancient writers, one can simply respond "those two people didn't think the same on the subject."

But sometimes you have to rethink those prevailing opinions. For about a decade, I have believed, and been telling people, that in the ancient world sex was not generally considered a participatory act between equals, but something done by the powerful to the powerless, e.g. men to women, adults to younger men, free men to slaves. With a single article, James Davidson has blown that out of the water. The key quotation is "the ancient Greeks talked of sex not as an act of aggression, but rather as a 'conjoining' or 'commingling'". That sent me to the dictionaries, and indeed, one common, perhaps the most common, Greek word for sexual activity is συμμείγνυμι (summeignumi). The sun- prefix definitely implies doing something in equal co-operation with someone else, as does the fact that the common form is in the middle voice, rather than the active (doing something) or passive (having something done to one). This immediately put Davidson's book, The Greeks And Greek Love on the list of books I must read soon. So far I've got no further than an introductory "Note on transcription and pronunciation" (which features one brilliant comment: "Anxious readers may be comforted by the fact that pronouncing ancient Greek properly is extremely difficult, so nobody ever bothers"), but I am looking forward to it (there's a favourable review by Oliver Taplin in The Guardian).* I may not be wholly prepared to give up the idea that sex was sometimes in the ancient world an expression of power - after all, it remains so often enough today. But I can no longer say that the Greeks had no concept of sex as an act of equals, since such a concept was hardwired into their language.

You may now all speculate why most of the examples I've used relate to sex.

* I have to take issue with Taplin on one point. Criticizing Davidson's reading of a homosexual affair into Homer's portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus, he says, "there is no call to bring sex into it; and to do so Davidson has to turn a blind eye to the night in book nine where they both bed down with women." Taplin may be right about the first point - there's certainly nothing explicit in the Iliad - but, as I wrote in a piece for CA News back in 2005, their sleeping with women is irrelevant unless one assumes that heterosexual activity a priori rules out the same individuals engaging in homosexual relations. Whilst conservative thinkers have believed, and still do believe this, an open-minded glance at the history of human sexuality quickly shows that it's nonsense.