Wednesday, February 16, 2005

2005 King's Greek Play

Every year the students of King's College London put on a Greek play in the original language, since 1987 as part of the University of London Festival of Greek Drama. This year the play chosen was the Rhesus, a play that has come down to us amongst the works of Euripides, but is probably by an unknown author, and dates to the beginning of the fourth century BC. (The Internet Classics Archive translation linked to above dates it to c. 450 BC, which is where those who accept it as actually by Euripides date it, considering it an early work.) If the common assumptions are correct, then, as Nick Lowe said in his pre-performance talk, Rhesus represents the only surviving tragedy not by the 'big three' playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the latest tragedy we have, and therefore our best evidence for how tragedy developed in the fourth century. It is also the only play that survives that dramatizes any part of Homer's Iliad, though, just as the Iliad only presents one incident from the Trojan War, so the Rhesus only presents one incident from the Iliad. The play is, however, little studied, and the last performance in the UK was apparently in 1968. I'd never read it before, even in English.

My first thought was how modern the play seems. Partly that was probably the staging, but not entirely. As the programme observes, it's really quite fast-paced. Greek tragedy is magnificent literature, with a huge emotional range and resonances that still touch us to day, but sometimes, it can really drag. Your bum starts to wriggle under the impact of a long choral ode, or an operatic aria by some Greek hero. (The worst offender is the longest play in the tragic corpus, Euripides' Phoenician Women, wherein he tries to do Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes and Sophocles' Antigone and Oedipus Rex all at once - it too isn't performed often, though it was considered one of his best in antiquity.)

Rhesus isn't like that at all. Everything moves quickly, and serves the functions of the plot. The Choruses are pretty short, and no scene outstays its welcome. Moreover, some of the devices that seem to a modern audience most artificial are played down in Rhesus. In other plays the Chorus is often either neutral or powerless - in Rhesus they are active participants on the side of the Trojan prince Hector, and indeed must depart off the stage for a short while, to avoid hearing information that for plot reasons they must not have. The deus ex machina at the end is also played down, and does not, as it often does in Euripides' plays, resolve an otherwise unresolvable conflict between the way the plot is heading and what the audience knows to be the outcome of the story (e.g. Euripides' Orestes; until the arrival of the god Apollo, that play can only end in an almighty bloodbath). In Rhesus, when the Muse Terpsichore, mother of the murdered Thracian prince Rhesus, arrives on stage, she tells the participants what (as Hector comments at the time) they already have guessed, that Rhesus' death was accomplished by Odysseus, not Hector. The only person who doesn't believe this, Rhesus' charioteer, has already left the stage. Elsewhere, the goddess Athena appears as a participant in the action.

It's also notable that the play centres itself around two actors in dialogue - there's only one short scene that requires three on stage at the same time, though some of the costume changes that are required can't be accomplished with only two actors. (For those who don't know, Greek tragedy was written around a small number of masked actors, each playing several roles, originally just one, then two, and finally three. Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus has a short scene at the end which requires four, and is therefore sometime thought suspect, but since people were already experimenting with 'guest' solo singers and extra Choruses, and comedy was already using a fourth actor, I prefer to think of this as another experiment.)

Overall, Rhesus appears to me to indicate a move away from tragedy as ritual civic act towards tragedy as entertainment. Of course, it's enormously unwise to generalize about all of fourth-century tragedy on the basis of a single play, just as it's probably unwise to judge Greek tragedy on the basis of the fairly small percentage of plays that survive.

Enough of the play, what about the production? As I said, it is given a modern staging, by people in modern military dress, with the stage occupied by a small Balkan hut. The wars of the former Yugoslavia still cast a long shadow over modern productions. This approach leads to the most harrowing messenger scene I've ever witnessed, as the bloodied charioteer crawls on stage and proceeds to vomit blood.

At the centre of the King's version are two excellent performances, by Paris Erotokritou as Hector, and Joseph Matlak as the Chorus Leader. Both of these believe in the reality of what they are doing, and are committed to the illusion. Rather too many of the other actors look as if they are in a play. Erotokritou also is (obviously) Greek himself, and so speaks the ancient version of his language with a natural flow that carries conviction. Some of the English actors sounded uncertain of the dialogue, and occasionally stumbled.

There were some good performances amongst the other cast members. Joseph Malcomson as Odysseus and Mike Stephens as Diomedes are worth noting. Also, Lucy Robinson as Athena skillfully conveyed the goddess' transformation into Aphrodite simply through body language. (Though the following scene with Paris is rather pointless, and is just a way of passing the time while Odysseus and Diomedes are offstage killing Rhesus and the Thracians.)

There are some interesting casting and costuming decisions. Rhesus makes his brief appearance (another notable point of the play is how little the character who give it its name is on stage) dressed as a louche Mediterranean gangster, whilst the hapless Trojan spy Dolon is played by a woman. Though both seem rather odd, I suspect the point is to suggest that both characters are out of their depth, and punching above their weight in comparison to the professional soldier Hector. But even Hector deludes himself into thinking that the Trojans can defeat the Greeks.

This is the first time I'd seen a King's Greek Play since they started using English surtitles. Though some might feel this is a step towards barbarism, I think it makes it easier for those without a very thorough familiarity with the play to keep up with the action, and I certainly would have been lost without it. On the other hand, the short film in English dramatizing the events of Iliad Book 10, meant to give the audience an idea of the background to the play, didn't work so well. A confusion of voices that did not always match what one saw on screen made the whole thing hard to follow, though I could see what they were trying to do, and it did become a little more coherent towards the end.

Overall, this production has its good moments, but is not quite as successful as it might be. However, all involved are to be commended for the bold, imaginative choice of play, and for giving what may be the only opportunity I will ever have to see Rhesus on stage. I hope it's not, though, as the point most convincingly carried over by this production is that Rhesus has been unjustly neglected, and deserves a more prominent place in the Greek tragic repertoire. When there is a tendency to reduce the corpus to the Oresteia, Oedipus Rex and Medea (yes, I know that's an exaggeration, but sometimes is seems like that), we need more imaginative choices of material like this.

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