Friday, September 28, 2007

My reading material for Barcelona

Medea in Afghanistan?

Euripides, Medea
Lazarus Theatre Company at Theatro Technis
Performance seen: 27 September 2007

George Eugeniou's Theatro Technis in Camden is fifty years old this year. Given the Greek origins of its proprietor, it's not surprising that Athenian drama has featured regularly amongst its shows. I've seen an Andromache, and a Persians. A poster in the foyer records a past performance of Lysistrata.

And now they act as the venue for Lazarus Theatre's Medea, directed by Ricky Dukes. Medea seems quite popular at the moment. This is the second production I've seen this year (after an enjoyable staging by London Ensemble Production, back in March, which I never got round to blogging), and next month it will be the Cambridge Greek Play. And, taking into account last year's UCL play, it seems to bring out the best in companies.

Much play has been made in publicity for this production of it being set in Afghanistan.* In the end, that amounts to little beyond costuming, most notably giving the female cast members head-scarves, and the use of a jet bomber sound effect at the beginning and end of the play. And nothing about any of this says Afghanistan as distinct from any other Muslim or partially Muslim country, such Iraq or Kosovo or Bosnia. Over the past decade or so I've seen plenty of productions of tragedy that have dressed their casts much the same (I think immediately of the RSC's 2005 Hecuba at the Albery, starring Vanessa Redgrave). All that changes are the nations that one first thinks of when presented with such imagery.

Such universality is no bad thing, really. It certainly suits the text, which is a straight reading of the play, preserving all character and place names. Without the programme, one would assume that the play is set in Corinth, and so it should be.

There are a few changes. As often, the Tutor (Stephen Chertion) is given the Messenger's Speech. More unusually, the Chorus is reduced down to a single person. Lydia Larson delivers a disengaged and aloof Chorus - many of the lines where the Chorus are actively trying to dissuade Medea are given instead to the Nurse (Carrie Whitton), and some Chorus lines are even given to Medea. And the Chorus' greatest moment of horror and pathos - their indecision as Medea murders her sons, is cut altogether.

Kevin Cooke's Aegeus is less of a bumbling old fool and more of an ethically-minded statesman than I’ve seen in the past. And Cooke’s performance is so successful that I was surprised when I looked in the programme and saw that the same actor played Creon. I had not spotted this, so different are the performances.

A production of Medea stands or falls on its lead actress, of course. In Louise Coleman, Lazarus has a Medea who is compelling, who dominates the stage from when she first emerges through the doors from the backstage area. She is denied her apotheosis (as was the case in the production from March) - instead her final confrontation with Jason (played by David Seymour, who rises fully to Coleman’s challenge) is visceral, physical, and violent.

I don't think this production is as innovative as it likes to think it is. What it is, however, is a good solid production, that understands what the play is about, and doesn’t mess around. I could do with more like this.

* It's not really worth mentioning that the one piece of press coverage on display talked about classical drama being 'a millennia old'. Oh dear. On so many levels.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Red and the Green

One of my hats is as incoming London Meetings Organizer for the British Science Fiction Association. It's a fun role, that allows me opportunities to have interesting conversations with sf authors.

Last night's guest was Juliet E. McKenna. In the course of being interviewed, the subject of the extreme Marxism that popped up in Greek history in the 1980s (Juliet read Classics at Oxford about the same time I was reading Ancient History and Greek in Edinburgh). ("Is that like Extreme Sports?" asked the interviewer, hero of the BSFA Graham Sleight).

The book on the right is not the only instance of extreme Marxism in ancient Greek history, but it is the fountainhead from which all the other instances flowed. G.E.M. de Ste. Croix. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World was published in 1981 (by which its author was already 70). It is an overtly Marxist theoretical work, that looks at the whole of the history of the Greek world, from as the subtitle says "the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests" (so much of it covers what is often considered to be Roman history). It's a hefty tome, weighing in at 700+ pages including appendices, notes, bibliography and index. If you were an aspiring Greek historian in the 1980s, as I was, it was a book you simply had to have.

But I suspect it was a book more owned than read. Classicists are en masse a very conservative bunch, and much further behind most academic disciplines in adopting the latest trendy theory - post-modernism, for instance, has never really caught on. I think this theoretical conservatism is both a blessing and a curse, but that's a debate for another time. For now, I'd just say that this attitude means that Class Struggle is probably more respected by Marxist academics than by Greek (and Roman) historians, though its subliminal influence may be greater.

For myself, I can't say I've opened it very often, even when I did a lot of research into Greek history, which I haven't for a decade now. I used to refer to it as "The Big Red Doorstop", which says something about my attitude to it. When I pulled it off the shelf last night, I was surprised to find that the frontispiece is Van Gogh's 'The Potato Eaters', though I'm sure I must have occasionally consulted it in the past , and that this is not the first time I've actually opened the book.

On the left is de Ste. Croix's other famous book, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War, published in 1972. My copy of this is rather more well-thumbed than Class Struggle - the pages are slightly dog-eared, the spine beginning to crack, and there are pencil annotations in the margins (yes I do write in my books - why do you ask?). It's also listed in the bibliography for my own book.* And it's something that used to come up time and again in other works. I rather think that, within the field of Greek history, this will be the more influential of his two major works. (And it's lighter.)

I never met de Ste. Croix, but I did see him across the common room in New College one time when I was visiting. This was in the early 1990s, and I gather that by this time he was quite unwell, and his faculties were not all they once had been. Yet he still continued to write up to his death in 2000.

In other news, Doctor Who is doing a story set in the Roman empire, the first since 'The Romans' in 1964. Be assured that I shall be blogging that when it is broadcast.

* Amazon appear to have misspelt my name. There was a time when this book was credited to 'Antony G. Keen' and 'Anthony G. Keen'. Clearly someone thought, obviously that's the same person (correct), and deleted what they thought was the least likely spelling, without checking the actual cover of the book (incorrect).

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Bacchae, with Alan Cumming

Euripides, The Bacchae, in a new version by David Greig
Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith
Performance seen: 19 September 2007

The Bacchae is possibly one of the most terrifying pieces of Greek theatre that survives. In it, Euripides returns to the theme of his other horror-play, Medea; that an excessive devotion to rationality and denial of irrational emotion can only lead to disaster.

The horror of the final denouement, as Agave comes on stage bearing the head of her son Pentheus, whom she and her sisters have torn apart, is unsurpassed. This horror is heightened because of its inevitability. The audience knows that Pentheus' destruction is inescapable, because Dionysus, whose true identity only the audience knows, has told them.

But it is also a funny play. There is a deep level of irony, as Dionysus warns Pentheus that (to paraphrase) 'if you insult me you insult the god.' Pentheus takes it metaphorically, but Dionysus means it literally. And when Pentheus is dressed as a Maenad, the audience is clearly meant to laugh. This laughter, as Pentheus can be seen walking into the trap, heightens the horror.

Bacchae is a very intertextual play, putting on stage the god who was already placed in the theatre in wooden statue form. Reference to earlier plays can be seen – Tiresias, for instance, appears fixed in the 'old man' persona that Sophocles had made famous in the Antigone and Oedipus, despite the fact that Bacchae takes place generations earlier. And it was probably influential from even before it was performed. When Aristophanes premiered his Euripidean tribute/parody Frogs in January of 405 BC, he made Dionysus lead character. Though Bacchae was not produced until later, probably in March of the same year, coincidence seems unlikely. Aristophanes might have seen the text found amongst Euripides’ papers after his death in 406.

That influence of Bacchae echoes down the ages. It seems to have influenced some accounts of the death of Orpheus, in which the poet is torn apart by Maenads at Dionysus’ instigation (though in others, such as Ovid, Bacchus punishes those responsible); like Pentheus, all that is left of Orpheus is his head.* Anthony Shaffer must surely have been thinking of the play when he wrote The Wicker Man, in which the upright and rational Sergeant Howie is entwined in the schemes of Dionysiac pagans, and part of the trap involves dressing Howie in clothes appropriate to the pagan celebration.

The National Theatre of Scotland's production, directed by John Tiffany and starring Alan Cumming as Dionysus, comes to Hammersmith laden with expectation, having been the hit of the Edinburgh International Festival. By and large, I think it lives up to those expectations, though it does have something of the curate's egg about it. In many ways, it's a fairly traditional approach. The play's Theban setting is retained, rather than a modern relocation, though the production is in some ways very Scottish – Tony Curran's Pentheus belongs to the line of Glasgow hardmen that James Cosmo and Billy Connolly have played so successfully on screen. The idea of Dionysus as rock star is not particularly novel – I saw it used in a production of Frogs back in 1996. And the androgyny of the god is inherent in his origin myth.

Central to this version, of course, is Cumming's performance. He enters in a deus ex machina brought to the beginning of the play, with his bare arse forming one of the play's main talking points. The night I saw the play, he seemed to be suffering from a cold, and sounded flat in his first song. Nevertheless, his sheer exuberance carries the play along well, together with some impressive special effects (one of which threatens to give you sunburn), and I found it impossible not to have a big grin on my face through much of the play.

The Chorus are portrayed as a group of black women, clad in red, singing and dancing across the stage. They are also made into more active participants in the play. They are not just Dionysus' audience and fan club. They know who he is (which in Euripides' text they do not), and Dionysus disguises them as Theban functionaries, to help him weave his web around Pentheus (the Times reviewer found this distracting, but I think that's unfair). I always intrinsically approve of a staging that restores music and movement to the Chorus (though at least one production has done this in a manner that actually put me off), and I thought the choreography and harmonizing effective and exciting (even if it did remind me of Return to the Forbidden Planet at times). The connection with gospel music highlights (if not, perhaps, deliberately), that the Chorus, and indeed Greek tragedy as a whole, emerged from religious ceremony.

I also like that not only the Chorus sing, but both Dionysus and Pentheus get musical numbers (and Cadmus and Tiresias do a little bit of soft-shoe shuffle). Arias were an important part of Euripidean tragedy. They are difficult to do in a modern production, and it’s nice to see someone try.

For me, the weakness comes at the end of the play (an opinion shared by a number of friends who've seen it). Previous productions I've seen (such as Peter Hall's at the National Theatre in 2002) have tended to play down the comedy. This staging plays that up, which causes problems on the transition to the horror of the end (not helped by bringing Pentheus' remains on stage in a bin bag). Not until Paola Dionisotti's Agave finally realizes what she holds in her hands does the right emotional pitch get hit, and silence descends on the auditorium. And then Cumming comes back on and slightly spoils it all.

So splendid as the god in human disguise, he can't quite carry off the god as god, despite a bank of bright spotlights behind him (though it surprised me that there isn't a costume change to underline the change in status). Instead, he comes across as a petulant child. Faced with Cadmus and Agave’s reasonable statements that the punishment they have received does not fit their crime, Dionysus says that it's not his fault, it's theirs, it serves them right, anyway Zeus approved his plans - he does absolutely anything rather than accept any personal responsibility. This is explicit in Greig's translation - what Euripides intended is hard to divine, as the text is defective at this point, but I suspect he may have intended to convey more of a sense that justice of a sort has been done (compare the end of the Hippolytus). Cadmus (Ewan Hooper), on the other hand, emerges as the only character with his dignity intact.

Despite my qualms, however, this remains a memorable production of a memorable play.

* Edit 21/09/07: A little extra reading shows that this is wrong. Orpheus’ death at the hands of Maenads inspired by Dionysus featured in Aeschylus' lost Bassarae, and so that legend may have influenced the depiction of Pentheus' death, which is not attested in literature before Euripides.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Helen of Troy

Euripides, Helen of Troy
The Scoop at More London
Performance seen: September 7th 2007

The term 'Greek tragedy' covers a wide range of different tonalities. At one extreme is a passionate horror like The Bacchae (currently running at the Lyric Hammersmith). At the other is Helen, which is often described as a light comedy. There's a lot of grounds for such a description. Both Helen and Menelaus can be portrayed as comic characters, flighty and vain, and foolish and rather stupid, respectively. And the play has a 'happy ending', with the reunited lovers escaping, Helen's disappointed suitor Theoclymenus resigned to his fate, and only the nameless Egyptians slaughtered by Menelaus and his Greeks coming off badly. It is easy to play Helen as almost a Noël Coward comedy of manners.

Steam Industry Free Theatre's approach in this production, directed by Phil Wilmott, is slightly different. They don't neglect comedy, by any means. Menelaus' shipmate, here named Atticus and demoted to the rank of slave [Edit 18/08/09: I let myself down here with a lack of familarity with the play - Meneleus' shipmate is clearly marked out as a slave in Euripides' original text.], is outrageously camp in the portrayal by Nick Smithers, whilst Paul Critolph's Theoclymenus is full-on pantomime villain. But Wilmott's adaptation seeks to find the seriousness in the play. Kerry Skinner's Helen is a woman wronged by malicious gossip, whilst Stewart Alexander's Menelaus, if sometimes confused, carries enough dignity to suggest why his wife should actively want him back.

This is quite a lean Helen as well. The action is got through in about seventy-five minutes. This is largely achieved by cutting most of the choral odes (which in any case don't directly address the action in the way most Greek choruses do). But Helen's explanation of her plan to Menelaus is also cut, so both she and her husband are presented as making up their deception of Theoclymenus as they go along. This is both funnier, and makes Helen and Menelaus more admirable. (On the other hand, Atticus' role appears to have been slightly expanded.)

Other changes involve the replacement of Helen's opening monologue with a dialogue conveying the same information to the audience, between her and the god Hermes, as he abducts her from Sparta. Hermes also returns in place of the Dioscuri at the end. Atticus and Teucer deliver the messenger's speech between them (and to the audience, not to Theoclymenus), and minor roles such as the door keeper are subsumed in the the Chorus.

The stage set has the look of a beach on the Indian Ocean. This is rather dictated by the need for it to also serve for an earlier performance of The Jungle Book on the same day. But the costumes are made to fit, with the Chorus clad in long skirts and midriff-baring tops, with the male members clad in baggy multicoloured shirts and shorts. (The beach effect was emphasized when I saw the play by a co-operative stiff breeze down the Thames.)

Steam Industry have often used the Scoop, the small open theatrical space (inaccurately described as an amphitheatre) in in front of City Hall on the south bank of the Thames, to stage Greek drama (Oedipus, Agamemnon and Children of Hercules). But this is the first time I had seen it. Though the space has nothing like the scale of a true Greek theatre, the tiers of stone backless seating and the open-air environment conveys some of the same effect, though Euripides never had the benefit of radio mikes.

I shall watch out for further productions in this venue.