Monday, October 29, 2007

Lost literature

Last week there were a couple of reports about planned new excavations on the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. This site has in the past produced scrolls from the villa's library, preserved when Vesuvius covered the site in volcanic mud. Most of those so far found have been in Greek, and it has long been suspected that there is a counterpart 'Latin library' to be found elsewhere in the villa. There is much excitement, and talk of new discoveries from the likes of Aristotle, Sophocles, Euripides and Catullus.

Fortunately, Mary Beard commendably pours some common-sense cold water on this. Quite rightly, she points out that what has come out so far is almost entirely works of Epicurean philosophy, most of one particular writer, Philodemus. As some of the works survive in multiple copies, it has been suggested that this may be his own library - which makes me think of Philodemus like a particularly unfortunate vanity-published author, surrounded by remaindered copies of his books that he can't get rid of. In any case, regardless of what one thinks of the quality of Philodemus' work, it is undeniable that his rediscovery has hardly set the Classical world alight. And I think Beard is right to suggest that if new material does emerge from the villa, it's most likely to be more of the same, relatively minor works of Epicurean philosophy. If the 'Latin library' exists, it's likely to be philosophical in nature. [ETA 21/01/15: Actually, some Latin texts, e.g. portions of Ennius and Caecilius Statius, have been found, so my scepticism about the 'Latin Library' is a little unfounded. Though whether the 'library' in the villa was so rigorously organised is another question.] That still leaves some scope for interesting discoveries - there are some lost Ciceronian philosophical works, such as the Hortensius, which moved St Augustine of Hippo and inspired him to study philosophy. But not too much hope for lost works of Catullus, not least because there aren't, as far as I know, any lost works of Catullus - though the text we have is in a mess, with a number of poems missing lines, traditionally because the one manuscript that survived was found propping up a wine barrel, and had been damaged, so another earlier manuscript would please Catullan scholars no end. (Though it might be even more useful to find texts of his friends and contemporaries Calvus or Cinna, the latter victim of one of the most famous cases of mistaken identity in history.) [ETA 03/01/15: Actually, I'm just plain wrong here - there are Catullan poems cited in other ancient sources that are not preserved in the manuscript tradition.]

But there are no a priori reasons for believing that there must have been a 'Latin library'. It's entirely possible that all the works there are Greek. A philosophical library might just possibly produce unknown works of Aristotle - just one of his dialogues, the works that made Aristotle's reputation, would be a sensational find. But the chances of Euripides or Sophocles are slim, I'm afraid. Indeed, it's possible that the new floors of the villa that have been found and not yet properly explored were never part of a library, and will produce no new literature.

It's much more likely that major new discoveries will emerge from the still incompletely studied Oxyrhynchus Papyri. These have produced, as well as the Menander Beard mentions, parts of lost plays by Euripides and Sophocles, poems of Sappho, and the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia. There is undoubtedly more to be found.

Nevertheless, it is fun to play the game Beard does, of naming what one would most like to see come out of the library (though I'm not going to follow her in sticking to Latin works). Of course, the closing of the archive in AD 79 means that it can't possibly include the lost Latin works I'd most like to see, the missing parts of Tacitus' Annals and Histories. We don't have those parts of the Annals that give his account of Caligula's reign, or the beginning of Claudius' or the end of Nero's, and have to fall back on other sources. But what I'd most like is the Histories. We get some of Tacitus' attitude to the emperor Domitian in the Agricola and elsewhere, but it would be marvellous to have his full account of Domitian's reign. I'd also like to see his account of the destruction of Pompeii, since we have two letters that Pliny the Younger wrote to him when asked for research materials, and I'd like to see how Tacitus used those.

One of the comments on Beard's post names the works of the emperor Claudius, and I'd endorse that, particularly the autobiography. I'd also add the autobiography of Augustus (not to be confused with the Res Gestae).

More Greek tragedy would of course be wonderful. I'd particularly like Aeschylus' Myrmidons, at the time better thought of than the plays that now survive. But I'd also like some plays that would give us another complete trilogy - the whole of the Prometheus trilogy would be nice, if only to settle which order they came in. Or perhaps Euripides' Andromeda. This was parodied by Aristophanes in the Thesmophoriazousae - we know this because Aristophanes tells us as much. But only once in all of Aristophanes' parodies of Euripides do we have both parody and object - a burlesque of the Helen in the same Aristophanes play mentioned. Possessing the Andromeda (or the Telephus) would tell us much not only about Euripides, but about Aristophanes as well.

I'd like Theopompus of Chios' lost Hellenica. This would provide new information about the fourth century BC. Plus, it would answer the vexed question of whether he was the author of the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia. The latter work is a fourth-century history, known from two quite significant fragments. It is generally felt that such a significant work can't be by an author that we've never heard of. But all the candidates advanced can be objected to on various grounds - my own preferred choice, Cratippus, I advocate merely because he is the least unlikely. Failing Theopompus, I'd like the title page of the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, with the author's name on it.

While we're on the subject of fourth century historians, I wouldn't say no to Ctesias' Persica. Like any Greek writing about the Persians, he'd have to be taken with a pinch of salt. But he spent many years at the Persian court, and would be an invaluable source for the later Achaemenid empire.

Finally, I'd like a work in neither Latin or Greek. In his Letters from Pontus 4.13, Ovid reveals that he has written a small book (libellum) in the language of the Getae, the people amongst whom he had been exiled. We might not be able to read it, of course. Indeed, it may not even exist. According to Ovid its contents were praise of the new emperor Tiberius, and his only reason for mentioning of it was to highlight the lengths he would go to, and the depths he would sink to, to praise Caesar, and please can he come home now? So he may have made up the work. But I'd love to have it, and prove that thought wrong.

There's much else as well. Some other tragedians than the Big Three. Any Old Comedy other than Aristophanes. The forensic speeches of Pliny the Younger (post AD 79, but never mind). But before I leave this subject, if you think the loss of creative works like this is something that affects only ancient literature, then talk to some historians of early film or early television. Theda Bara in Cleopatra, or most of the first series of Callan, or much of Doomwatch, are just as gone as Euripides' Palamedes, save that they are better documented, and some of them live on in the memories of those lucky enough to have seen them.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Four legionaries and a funeral

On Tuesday's edition of BBC Radio 4's arts magazine show, Front Row, Sir Ben Kingsley gave an interview about The Last Legion in which no mention was made of Arthur, Merlin or Excalibur, whilst making clear to any listener with the slightest knowledge of the Matter of Britain that this is what the film is about. This is rather symbolic of the film's schizophrenic publicity materials, which at first ignored the Arthurian nature of the narrative, as if it's meant to be a big surprise (which, in fairness, is how the film itself is structured), but eventually came to embrace it (presumably because the magic name of Arthur was felt necessary to draw audiences in, who would otherwise stay away from a sword-and-sandal epic).

It's actually a little bit surprising that Sir Ben can recall anything about the film, or can be bothered promoting it. Filming was done in 2005, and the film is at least a year overdue on release. When it finally came out in the US, there were no press previews, usually a sign that not only is a film a turkey, but the producers know it's a turkey.

But somebody plainly felt that there was a better chance of promoting the film over here. They may have a point. The Last Legion is a terribly British film, with a cast full of the usual UK thesps: Colin Firth, John Hannah, James Cosmo, Kevin McKidd (last seen working the Roman side of the tracks) in a silly beard, as well as Kingsley himself. The nearest to the sort of US star usually felt desirable to make this sort of film work is Deep Space Nine's Alexander Siddig.

Britishness aside, the film defines itself within the first ten minutes, through reference to other, better, movies: Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars. That pretty much tells you what you can expect, and the film doesn't deviate much from that, as it throws in further nods, to innumerable Alexandre Dumas and Errol Flynn swashbucklers for the most part, but also to James Bond movies, and, in the most absurd moment of the film, The Great Escape (or was it The Outlaw Josey Wales?). The resolution of the final battle is entirely predictable, and it even cops out of a noble death. And that's the trouble with this film. There is nothing in it you haven't seen before. It never does anything novel and interesting with its materials, nor does it do what Martin Campbell's The Mask of Zorro achieved, and tell a traditional story so well that one is reminded why one liked these sort of films in the first place. Doug Lefler has worked on Hercules and Xena, but brings none of the charm of those series with him.

Historically, it's nonsense, of course. The Last Legion sits in the same tradition of placing the Arthur legend in a historical framework as does 2004's King Arthur. But unlike that film, it makes no claims to historical authenticity, and is therefore less absurd. Indeed the film sets out its attitude very early. In the opening narration Tiberius is described as "the last in Julius Caesar's line", and described as a great emperor. That is so far removed from anyone's perception of the historical reality around the tyrannical old pervert that it's as if the film's creators say at this point "look, we have no intention of allowing historical fact stand in the way of the story we want to tell." And why should they? The Last Legion is no less historically accurate than the 1930s and 1940s swashbucklers it emulates. One might have thought audiences had become more historically sophisticated since, but the BBC's Robin Hood works on the basis that they haven't, so why shouldn't this film? So, for instance, there is a distinctly Islamic tinge to the mis-en-scene of the representatives of the Eastern Roman empire, regardless of Mohammed's birth being a century in the future.

One presumes that Valerio Massimo Manfredi's original novel, which I haven't read, paid more attention to known historical fact. But though Manfredi is credited as "historical consultant", the film is only "based in part" on his novel, and though Manfredi provided the original story treatment for the film, that was reworked by Carlo Carlei & Peter Rader, and then again in Jez and Tom Butterworth's screenplay. It is presumably then that the deviations from Manfredi (such as the replacement of his Italian warrior woman Livia with the Indian Mira, presumably to bring in the Bollywood demographic), from history, and, arguably, from sense, came in.

Nevertheless, real history seeps through, presumably from Manfredi. Through the appearance of the Goth leader Odoacer, and the magister militum Orestes, there's a fair bit of the actual story of the deposition of the last western emperor Romulus Augustulus, though it's been confused by adding the sack of Rome from a half-century before. Other elements, such as the Ninth Legion in Britannia, show more familiarity with Rosemary Sutcliff than anything else. The presence of Hadrian's Wall is just gratuitous, and perhaps unwise in the light of its use in King Arthur. (And which way is is meant to be facing? North or south?)

Manfredi's adult novel causes problems in another area. Is this a film for adults, or, because it centres on a the adventures of a prepubescent boy (though played by then sixteen-year old Thomas Sangster), is it a film for children? This was evidently a problem during filming - so when Aishwarya Rai climbs into bed with Colin Firth, both are fully clothed, and they do nothing but cuddle. It's also a problem for the film's distributors - when I saw it the accompanying trailers veered from violent blockbusters like American Gangster and The Kingdom, to the unashamed kid's fare of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium.

This is not a particularly dreadful film; but neither is it very inspiring. It will not be much remembered amongst the ranks of Roman empire movies.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Renault on Alexander

Three weeks ago I posted a shot of my reading material for my week in Barcelona; Mary Renault's four books on Alexander. As it happened, due to a mix up I left The Nature of Alexander behind and took Simon Scarrow's The Eagle's Conquest instead, but that's another story ... In any case, I have now read all four, and should write about them.

I'd actually read very little Renault before this - only her account of the sixth-century BC poet Simonides, The Praise Singer. But she's one of those authors I've always felt I should read more of, especially after last year's rather fine documentary.

There's something about the life of Alexander the Great that, though it makes for glorious biography, resists dramatization. I think it's because it's essentially anti-climactic. His life story builds to a crescendo through the great battles of the Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela, to which the occupation of Babylon should be a coda. But then he lived, and continued to campaign, for another eight years. These years are filled with episodic incidents, that it's hard to sew a dramatic thread through that. Alter the order of events, and a writer will be castigated for inaccuracy. But try as hard as possible to be accurate, and the writer ends up with a sprawling shapeless account, and the harder one adheres to history, the less dramatic the story becomes. Such issues plagued Robert Rossen's 1956 film, and Oliver Stone's 2004 version (which I discussed here, and a little bit here).* I haven't read the trilogy by Valerio Massimo Manfredi (of whom more in my next post), but Paul Cartledge puts the boot into it in his Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, calling it "unimaginative" (p. 240) and complaining of its "dullness" (p. 312), so perhaps the same problems afflict that work.

How does Renault deal with this problem? Essentially, she sidesteps it, by not really telling Alexander's story. Indeed, to describe the three Alexander novels as a 'trilogy' is misleading, as they do not really link up into a single narrative.

The first time she wrote about Alexander,** in The Mask of Apollo (1966), he is a walk-on, as a fourteen-year old, at the end; this novel is not his story at all. Four years later came her next novel, Fire from Heaven. This is Alexander's story, but it is the story of his youth. It climaxes at a logical point for a climax, at the death of Alexander's father Philip, and his acclamation as king. In her 'Author's note' at the end, she explicitly directs the reader to Plutarch's Life of Alexander or Arrian's Expedition of Alexander for what happened next. The implication is that she had no intention of tackling the later events of Alexander's life herself.

Nevertheless, two years later (and interestingly, at the exact moment that Robin Lane Fox was preparing what remains the best-known academic account of Alexander's life),*** Renault published The Persian Boy, which takes events up to Alexander's death in 323 BC. But it is not Alexander's story. It is that of Bagoas, the eponymous Persian Boy, who narrates the novel. Alexander is a supporting character, albeit the most important one by far. Over a hundred pages pass before Alexander is brought on stage, though his actions influence Bagoas' life long before. In that offstage period are all of the climactic actions of the first part of Alexander's life - the battles, the visit to Egypt, the conquest of Babylon. Alexander is brought on at the beginning of the episodic eight years mentioned above. But it is still not Alexander's story. The dramatic thread is presented by Bagoas' progression, from a novelty at Alexander's court, to his sexual partner, and to eventually becoming Alexander's partner is almost every aspect of his life, accompanying him on his harshest campaigns. Conveniently for Renault, Bagoas' life story is under-reported in the sources, allowing the dramatist considerable scope.

The key crisis of Alexander's later years was the difference between him and his Macedonians over his orientalizing. I have always felt that Alexander saw that he had become the new Great King of Persia, and it was necessary for him to act the role. The Macedonians, on the other hand, saw Persia as conquered territory, and viewed with suspicion Alexander's use of Persians in his administration, army, and his adoption of Persian practices and dress. Renault evidently shares that view. And having a Persian narrator allows her to dramatize that conflict from a Persian perspective, to show how Persians thought it humiliating for Alexander to be addressed in the rough comradely manner his Macedonians used; most historians tend to view this to one degree or another from the Macedonian side, if with more understanding of Alexander's position. (I also think that, wanting to pick up Alexander after Babylon, Renault was more-or-less forced into choosing a Persian central character.)

I also find that it is in The Persian Boy that Renault made the suggestion that has always appealed to me, that when asked to whom he left his empire, Alexander may have said not to kratisto ('to the strongest'), but to kratero ('to Krateros').

Renault clearly found she had more to say about Alexander, but had left herself little room to produce more fiction. So, for the first and only time, she wrote a book of adult non-fiction, The Nature of Alexander,**** which was published in 1975. It is more of a defence of Alexander than anything else - she had already railed against some modern scholars (and the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus) in the 'Author's note' for The Persian Boy. It's a minor work in terms of Alexander scholarship, and blighted by her somewhat blinkered view of Alexander, who for Renault is largely shorn of any possibility of being seriously flawed (though she may well be right about the implausibility of Alexander as alcoholic). But as a means of understanding Renault's attitude towards Alexander, and the way the shadow of William Tarn falls across her, it's a fascinating document.

She put Alexander aside for a while, writing The Praise Singer, before returning to the theme in her final novel, Funeral Games. Again, this is not Alexander's story, though his shadow falls on everything that happens. The novel begins where The Persian Boy ends (indeed slightly before, so that some events are featured in both books), at the deathbed of Alexander. He has already slipped into a coma, and is dead within a few pages. Renault then tells the story of the next fourteen years of struggle for Alexander's legacy. It is a bitty story, due to the nature of the events it describes (and indeed, the struggle for Alexander's empire was not really resolved for another decade after the point at which Renault ends, with the murder of Alexander's son and wife). But there are a number of points of interest. Renault follows the sources in making Krateros a rather shadowy figure, whose actions all seem to take place offstage. And she seems to relish the opportunity of presenting what other people thought of Bagoas, suggesting he is not perhaps as meek and insignificant as he sees himself.

Again, I find myself agreeing with Renault, in this case in her interpretation of the actions of Ptolemy. As the Successors prepared to fight over Alexander's legacy, Ptolemy got himself assigned as satrap to Egypt. Renault gives him what I have always believed to have been his motive; when all the others wanted to take over the whole empire, Ptolemy recognized that none of those with ambitions to rule would accept one of their fellows as their ruler, and without Alexander, to whom they had all deferred, the empire could not hold together. So he identified that part of the empire that could most successfully maintain its independence from the rest (as Egypt often had from Persia in the past), and set about making it his own kingdom.

At the heart of Funeral Games, however, is Alexander's cousin Eurydike. She clearly appeals enormously to Renault. Trained in hunting, accustomed to wearing man's clothes, Eurydike is someone who prefers the company of men, though not for sex, and wishes she were a man. One suspects that Renault herself shared many of those qualities, though she recognizes that Eurydike's failure to conform to what is expected of her is a factor in her downfall.

One last point is to say how much Oliver Stone's film is influenced by Renault, as recognized in an unpublished paper by Shaun Tougher, and emphasized by Stone's participation in the 2006 documentary. He could not have the rights to Renault's novels (HBO and Mel Gibson's Ikon were contemplating a mini-series based on them), but a number of Renault scenes get into Stone's script. Alexander being in his mother's bedroom when his father enters to rape her, is out of Fire from Heaven, and the decision to use Ptolemy's history as a framing device may have been derived from Renault's coda to Funeral Games (though it may also have been a spoiling tactic against the Baz Luhrmann/Dino de Laurentiis Alexander, which was to use Manfredi's trilogy, which purports to be Ptolemy's History). And would Stone have given the limited prominence to Bagoas that he does had the eunuch not featured in Renault's novel?

I'm glad I've read these novels.*****

* There's a typically entertaining discussion of screen Alexanders in Gideon Nisbet, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture, pp. 87-135.

** According to the abstract for a paper given by Shaun Tougher, 'Images of Alexander: the case of Mary Renault', he appears in her 1956 novel The Last of the Wine. He is not included in this list of the novel's dramatis personae, but he may be mentioned in the novel's postscript, set a couple of generations after the main action. I don't have the book to hand to check.

*** For all that other academics can sometimes be sniffy about it.

**** She had written a children's non-fiction work in 1964, The Lion in the Gateway: The Heroic Battles of the Greeks and Persians at Marathon, Salamis, and Thermopylae.

***** There's another review of the trilogy by Jeanne Reames here: (you'll have to cut and past the link, because something sucks like a sucky thing, and I can't get the HTML to work). She makes some interesting points, but I think she misreads what Renault is trying to do with The Persian Boy.

Edited 23/10/07: A correspondent tells me that the mention of Alexnader in The last of the Wine is that the manuscript that the novel purports to be is being sent to Alexander; so he doesn't actually appear as a character.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Facebook and academia

There's an article in the Independent about students' use of Facebook and other social networking sites. Go away and read it before continuing. [Unfortunately you can't any more, as the Indy has either moved it or deleted it.]

A few observations occur to me:

1) There seems to be an awful lot of "OMG! The students are doing something that we don't control!" Yes, of course they are. They have their own lives, and universities do not own them 24/7. Get over it.

2) "[M]ost [sixth-formers hoping to go to university] ... resented the idea that [social networking sites] might be invaded by academics." This is hardly a surprise. Most sixth-formers think of academics as being just like school teachers. Ask the same question to a bunch of first-year undergraduates, who have had time to learn that there's a difference, and you might well get a different answer.

That said, of course certain spaces within social networks are student spaces (though not, of course, Facebook itself - students have no more right to ownership of that than any other section of the population), and tutors should not barge in there uninvited. There are a couple of online student fora I read, and occasionally contribute to - but I'm very careful what I do or do not say, and not to assert any authority. And there are some areas within those fora into which I won't go. (As a result, I have apparently acquired a reputation as someone who is terribly helpful. But then these are OU students, who are different from the normal run of 18-22 year old undergraduates.)

3) "Because students are going on to Facebook and using it with their friends, there is informal learning occurring and students may be blocking certain people out of this." Yes. So what? If a subset of students go down the pub and talk about their lecture, there's informal learning going on, excluding those who aren't there. Should universities be insisting that students only go in the pub as a full group? (Difficult in a course with 100 + students, I'd have thought.) If a student reads a book not on the reading list, there's informal learning going on, from which all their fellows are excluded. An individual learning experience cannot be micro-managed in this way. Again, get over it.

4) "Facebook owns the material on the site, including teaching notes and, potentially, research, says Lawrie Phipps, manager of the users and innovation programme at JISC." Yeah, this just isn't true. Looking at the terms of use, by putting User Content on the site, you grant Facebook a license to distribute that content. You do not give them ownership, and should you choose to remove your content, the distribution license expires immediately (this is explicitly stated). That seems to me to place the ownership and control of the User Content fairly firmly in the hands of the person who created that content. I have, for instance, more control over content in Facebook than I have over some articles I've published in academic journals.

5) "I'm on Facebook and I have a laugh with friends ... But, if it comes to academic work on Facebook, it's totally inappropriate." Twaddle. You can make academic use of Facebook, as I do, to network with other academics - academic networks are social networks too, you know.

6) "Students are using these social-networking sites, and they often appear less keen on using the virtual learning environment. In fact, [Jo Fox] suspected, the popularity of one was leading to her increasing lack of success in getting interactions going in the other." Again, is this a surprise? Students who are unresponsive in seminars may become very animated once down the pub. Worrying about what students are doing outside of class isn't a productive use of time.

The people who really wish this wasn't the case, of course, are the university administrators pushing Virtual Learning Environments, in the hope that it will enable them to stop worrying about scruffy lecture halls that eat all that maintenance budget. They don't want to be told why this will not work, and think that if only the students weren't distracted by Facebook, students would put all their energies into the university-approved VLE. It doesn't work like that. Don't get me wrong, I think the VLE can bring much (particularly in an institution like the OU). But it isn't a magic solution to all problems, and needs to be treated as a supplement to other parts of the learning experience, not a substitute.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

2007 Cambridge Greek Play

Euripides, Medea
2007 Cambridge Greek Play, Cambridge Arts Theatre
Performance seen: Saturday 13th October 2007 (2.30 pm)

There was a time when the Medea was not amongst the most renowned of Euripides' plays. But the combined effects of Sir Denys Page's classic 1938 edition for schoolchildren, and the rise of the feminist movement, which saw themes in the play with which it sympathized, has brought it to prominence. It is now the most performed of all Euripides' works. Still, the chance of seeing three productions in the same year is rare, but that is what has happened in 2007. All three that I've seen have set the play in different types of patriarchal backgrounds, where male dominance is being challenged. In March London Ensemble Productions produced a Medea with a strong preponderance of Scottish accents, conjuring up the assertive masculinity of hard men in Glasgow tenements. Last month, Lazarus Theatre Company set the play against the background of an Afghanistan where Muslim are trying to emerge from the repression of the Taleban.

The Cambridge Greek Play chose to avoid the Muslim country background that is now common in modern settings of Greek tragedy, not least because they were one of the pioneers of it in the 1998 production of Trojan Women, set in the Balkans. Instead, Annie Castledine and Clive Mendus' production takes place in 1912 England. The background is the challenge to male patriarchy that the suffragette movement represented, and the Chorus are clothed as suffragettes. This presents a different dynamic between Medea and Chorus to that normally seen. In most cases, the Chorus are Medea's friends, and their support for her is initially offered out of friendship, until they are repelled by what she plans. By then, of course, she has trapped them into silence, and they can do nothing. This Chorus, on the other hand, supports Medea on ideological principle, because she is a woman. But at the same time, they are frightened of her, and retreat before her rages in terror.

The historical setting has another link back to the original performance. In 1912, England, and the rest of Europe, stood on the brink of a devastating war. That was also the case for Athens in 431 BC - Sparta's ultimatum had been rejected in the previous months, and as the City Dionysia took place in March, Theban troops were attacking Plataea.

Less successful are the occasional brief Edwardian song-and-dance routines performed by the Chorus. I appreciate that movement and music should be part of any Chorus, and approve of all attempts to convey that. But it doesn't always work, and these examples are too reminiscent of Half A Sixpence for my liking.

A more successful injection of music, perhaps, is the sing-song delivery of Holly Strickland's Tutor - never quite an aria, but not quite normal speech either. Of the other secondary characters, Frances Stevenson's Nurse is seemingly costumed in oriental dress, which looks a little odd juxtaposed with the 1912 setting for everything else. Robert Lloyd-Parry, being older than many of the undergraduate cast, brings a gravitas to Aegeus that might otherwise be missing, though he is still portrayed as a slightly buffoonish figure, as is common (it is possible to bring more depth to the character, as the Lazarus production showed). All these are wholly competent. All the actors deliver the Greek in such a way as to indicate that they know the meaning of what they are saying, not just the sounds, though some, such as Matthew Hiscock's wheelchair-bound Creon, cannot conceal that this is not their first language.

The only wrong note is sounded by Virginia Corless' Messenger. Clad in modern dress, when she arrives on stage she leaps over one Chorus member, and kicks another up the bum. This portrayal of the messenger as a trickster figure, for me, drains the pathos from what she has to say - the full horror of what she is reporting is not conveyed, because really, she doesn't seem all that bothered by it herself.

The key relationship in the play is that between Jason and Medea. All three productions I have seen this year have chosen to present that relationship as one which retains a great passion and desire, especially on Jason's part. Marta Zlatic, an impressive Hekabe in 1998, plays Medea as a monster, but a compelling one. She has an excellent foil in Misha Verkerk's Jason. Not only does he deliver the Greek convincingly, he is extremely handsome; one can see why any Greek woman should want him, and why none would want to give him up.

Castledine is quoted in the programme as telling her cast never to judge Jason too harshly. At first this seems odd. Doesn't Euripides himself judge Jason harshly? In the debate between them both, it seems obvious that Medea is the winner, and the Chorus as much as tell him that they are not going to be taken in by his sophistry. But some of the things Jason says would have been heard differently by the original audience. When he tells Medea that she is privileged to have lived amongst Greeks instead of barbarians, a modern audience laughs at such blatant chauvinism. But an Athenian audience would have agreed with Jason. They would probably have done so again when he says that it is better for wives to be sensible when their husbands find new bedmates. So perhaps Castledine has a point.

She certainly gives Jason the last word, after an impressive deus ex machina scene (as with Bacchae, the deus ex machina is also the protagonist of the action). Euripides' text ends with five lines for the Chorus. This is cut here, making the last utterance the despairing curse upon Medea of the devastated Jason.

A last noteworthy point is that there is an element of performance in the round in this staging. There is seating at the back of the stage. I presume the intent is to recapture some of the intimacy and sense of community of an Athenian staging, but for those in the stalls, like me, then the performers addressed the seats on stage, they often had their backs to us, and it became a distancing element. More successful was the musicians, not only placed on stage, but reacting to the action as if they were part of it.

Overall, this version is a success. If it is the least of the three Medeas I have seen this year, and definitely not as enjoyable as UCL's stunning 2006 production, this should be taken as an indication of the high standards set by those productions, not an indication of any failing by this.

Catalonia photos

A couple of weeks ago I was in Barcelona. I've uploaded some of the shots that I took of Roman Barcelona and Tarragona.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Photos from Rome (not mine)

One of my (soon to be former) students went to Rome a week or so ago. She took a lot of photos, 831 in total (a few of which were, credit where it's due, taken by her husband). It's such a good collection that I asked (and got) permission to put a link in here. She photographs everything, and takes a lot of photos of objects that interest her, from angles that are often a bit unusual. This makes this a great archive for photos of famous buildings showing details that often get overlooked in the standard views.