Monday, September 26, 2005

Shifting televisions

We've just upgraded to Digital Cable. As a result, we no longer get a number of the channels that I used to watch history programmes on. I'm not worried about UKTV Documentary, as their programmes come round to UKTV History, and Discovery Channel only had Time Team that I was interested in, and even that seemed to be just repeating itself. But I shall miss the History Channel, which when it wasn't doing Nazis and murderers could show some interesting programmes (mainly from Channel 4's output). I could have these, of course, but to get The History Channel I'd have to take the total package of channels, and it's not worth it for the full range of channels I have no interest in watching (like the chance to ignore Living TV three times a day).

Still, BBC Four and UKTV History will compensate, I'm sure, and maybe one day Telewest will see the advantage of offering packages that just have all the factual channels wrapped up together. Or is that not what consumer choice is supposed to be about?

Friday, September 23, 2005

I can see our house from up here!

Just watched the episode 'The Romans in Britain' from The History of Britain from the Air (on Channel 5). I was pleased to see that I recognized most of the sites before we were told what they were, and some of the aerial views made me slightly regret not putting a tape in to record the programme. But the commentary was pretty dire - traditional and full of what we now know to be false, or at least misleading.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Britain A.D.

I finally caught the last episode of Francis Pryor's series Britain A.D. on The History Channel this lunchtime. I remain unconvinced by some of what Pryor is trying to argue.

At the core of Pryor's argument is the notion that the so-called 'Anglo-Saxon settlement' was nothing of the sort, that no more than a few bands of soldiers came across, and what actually happened was that a fashion for Germanic culture spread across the south and east of Britain. Much archaeological evidence for continuity of settlement is advanced, and the absence of clear unequivocal evidence for conquest noted.

Now, as I've said when I've discussed this issue before, I don't have a problem with rejecting the common picture of the Anglo-Saxons driving out the British root-and-branch. But Pryor goes too far for me for a couple of reasons.

Nobly, he doesn't shirk the question of the British adoption of the German language, and has a talking head argue that English looks to have been considerably influenced by attempts of Celtic-speakers to learn a Germanic language. But he never really answers why the British should have so totally taken up Germanic culture. They were 'realigning themselves according to the shifts in Europe after the collapse of Rome', he says. Yes, maybe, but why? One explanation would be the arrival of a new Germanic elite, through military conquest - but Pryor doesn't want to accept that. Yet he advances nothing much in its place. (Another archaeologist talking head says that just because she is wearing jeans doesn't make her American, which is true - but if you think that the spread of American culture through Britain is unconnected with America's military might, and the presence of American military forces in Britain, then you'd be wrong.)

The other concern I have is his attitude to the written sources. He is absolutely right that we should not accept without question what our histories tell us. That is naive. But Pryor seems to want to totally ignore the histories. The assumption seems to be that, once one has established that a historian has his own agenda, he can then be dismissed as having nothing to tell us. Pryor replaces the unquestioned primacy of the written sources with the equally unhelpful unquestioned primacy of archaeology.

At the end of the programme he talks about the way in which Britain after the Roman conquest never lost its own identity. But how can that be? He has spent the best part of an hour arguing that many of the national stories that make us who we think we are, are myths. In the end, I can't help thinking that Pryor's version of what happened after the Romans left Britain is as much an invention as the Arthurian romance and Anglo-Saxon conquest that he rails against.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Prometheus Bound

Prometheus Bound, in a new translation by James Kerr
Sound Theatre, London
Performance seen: 6th September 2005

Prometheus Bound is an odd play. It is preserved in a collection of the works of Aeschylus, but it may have actually been written by his son Euphorion. It is commonly thought to be the first play in a trilogy, but there is a case for it being the second.[1] If by Aeschylus, it is a late work, yet only uses two actors, neglecting the third which Sophocles had introduced and which Aeschylus himself employed in the Oresteia.[2] As the text stands, it seems to imply considerable use of stage machinery - and for that reason some scholars would pronounce these passages inauthentic. The play has the ultimate messenger speech when the messenger-god Hermes appears; yet Hermes comes not to impart information, but in an unsuccessful attempt to gather it.

Little actually happens in Prometheus Bound. Once Prometheus is chained to his rock at the opening, he spends the rest of the play telling stories, of one sort or another, to a series of visitors - the Chorus of Oceanids, Oceanus himself, Io and finally Hermes. Throughout the play, Prometheus is on stage, never able to leave (another unusual feature of the play). It is positively Beckett-like, and I thought that before reading Michael Billington's review in The Guardian, where the same point is made. The dark and stark staging of the Sound Theatre's production suggests that they had thought of the comparison too.

Kerr's new translation was worked out in performance with his lead, David Oyelowo. For a translation worked on for its stageability, it seems quite close to the Greek, closer than, say, the late Don Taylor's early eighties adaptations of Sophocles and Euripides.

The Chorus are comprised of actors either fresh out of or still in drama school. This gives an air of the student production to their contribution, and they giggle more than seems appropriate. But it must be said that they execute well some complicated interlocking polyphony during one of the late choral odes, and the use of music in the choruses is in general well-done. Billington mentions the 'sexy slips' that the Chorus are wearing; it seems that the production meant that feature not to be noticed, as the Chorus are dimly lit almost throughout the play, and spend much of it hiding in the wings or amongst the audience.

The other supporting cast are certainly competent enough, though casting to have regional accents speaking classical verse was radical in the 1970s, but a bit old hat now. However, the doubling of the roles of Hephaestus and Oceanus does not work, as they are too obviously the same person. Multiple roles played by the same actor is becoming something of a vogue in the mounting of Greek tragedy these days, but too often ignores the fact that the Greeks made this work through mask and costume. The approach can succeed in modern productions - the recent RSC Hecuba had the same actor in the roles of Polymestor and Odysseus, distinguishing the two through costume, hair styling and performance (in particular accent). Costume alone appeared to be the approach of the Sound Theatre's Prometheus Bound. This works with the doubling of Force and Io, as Force is a non-speaking role, and does not draw the attention of the audience. It almost works with Power and Hermes, as they are respectively at the very beginning and very end of the play (but as both are mouthpieces for Zeus, a cleverer move might have been to combine the roles). But Hephaestus and Oceanus appear in too quick succession. (In the original masked production, Hephaestus was probably doubled with Prometheus, with the second actor taking all the other speaking roles.)

In the end this is a play which stands or falls on the portrayal of Prometheus himself, the one character onstage from beginning to end. Prometheus is the victim, yet he is not always one who engages the audience's sympathies. He is arrogant and self-righteous, in comparison to the much more easy-going and likeable Oceanus. But Prometheus is also right, and Oceanus is wrong, because Prometheus makes a stand against the new tyranny of Zeus (though - Hermes apart - Zeus' side of the dispute is not really put in the play). Billington in his Guardian piece suggests that Prometheus gives in to despair and suffering. This is surely incorrect - Prometheus is in pain, and is momentarily overwhelmed by it, but his foreknowledge has prepared him for the agony, and provides him with the certainty, not just the hope, that eventually he will be released. It is this knowledge of what is to come that fuels his arrogance.

It is not an easy role to essay, made harder by the fact that the actor is likely to be restrained, and denied freedom of movement (rather like Beckett's Winnie in Happy Days, who spends the whole play buried in a mound of earth). David Oyelowo, whose performance has been critically acclaimed, makes it all harder for himself by performing with his eyes closed right up until the very last moment before the lights fade. I'm not quite sure what this is meant to symbolize (perhaps that Prometheus doesn't need his eyes to see things clearly, or that he is slowly waking up throughout the play), but it's undeniably a striking visual image. Oyelowo's Prometheus is dragged on stage in a state of almost epileptic near-catatonia, twitching and moaning as he is chained to the rock (as good a means of any as dealing with Prometheus' silence in the opening scene). There is then five minutes of bestial shrieking and screaming as Prometheus struggles futilely against the pain and his bondage, before he actually begins to speak. At first, it's not quite clear what the fuss over Oyelowo. His performance is good, but not one that immediately looks like it will remain in ones memory. But Oyelowo gradually warms into his performance, and by the final scene, as a bound Prometheus shows that he is free in spirit, and the physically-unrestrained Hermes bonded in servitude to Zeus, and, buoyed by his foreknowledge, treats the messenger god with the utter contempt of the free for the slave who has no power over them, Oyelowo is on sizzling form.

Overall, then, though there are a few bumps along the way this production must be judged a success.

[1] The trilogy is usually given as Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-carrier. But, as has been observed, if the Prometheus Unbound contains Prometheus' release from his imprisonment and his revelation of the prophecy about Thetis to Zeus, little action is left for the third play. It seems to make more dramatic sense for Prometheus the Fire-carrier to be the first play, and to deal with Prometheus' giving the gift of fire to Man (and the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature agrees with me, though the OCD thinks that this title is a variant for another Aeschylus play known to have been presented as part of another trilogy).

[2] At the opening Prometheus is dragged on stage by two speaking characters, Hephaestus and Kratos (Power), accompanied by a non-speaking character, Bia (Force). Yet, although Prometheus is the main speaking character in the play, he says nothing until these three have departed the stage (something that can cause problems for modern productions), and the rest of the play is constructed for two actors. Given that Prometheus is supposed to be impaled on stage, the suspicion is that Prometheus was represented by a puppet, and the actor playing Hephaestus left the stage and then returned to voice Prometheus.

In any case, the assumption that Greek tragedy can necessarily be placed on a fixed line of progression is flawed, as was shown by the discovery of the date of the Suppliants. With a Chorus of fifty, a feature of early tragedy before the numbers were reduced, this was thought to be one of Aeschylus' earliest plays. Papyrus discoveries have now shown it to be about twenty to thirty years later than originally thought, and later than some supposedly more 'advanced' plays.