Thursday, March 13, 2008

2008 University of London Festival of Greek Drama

The University of London’s Festival of Greek Drama has been going on since 1987, and acts as an umbrella for the King’s and UCL Greek plays, as well as lectures and, sometimes, other productions. This year it has afforded the opportunity to see three tragedies in three weeks, representing the three main Athenian tragedians. So I’ve chosen to blog them all in a single entry, rather than separately

Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus

2008 King’s Greek Play, Greenwood Theatre

Performance seen: 6 February 2008

I had once evolved a theory that student/youth theatre groups couldn’t really do Greek tragedy (and yes, I know I start every discussion of a student production with this theory). Recent productions of Orestes and Medea have persuaded me that this judgement was in error. I realized that it was based on a couple of dreadful productions of the Oedipus Tyrannos (one of which you can read about here), and a couple of ropey Antigones. Against that, I’ve seen some not-too-bad productions of Trachiniae, and one of Ajax which I recall being okay, though it was nearly thirty years ago and I had little to judge it against at the time. So perhaps it is not even that youngsters can’t do Sophocles, but that they can’t do the Theban plays.

Of course, it’s not just students that this affects. The status of the Oedipus as the recognized foremost example of Attic tragedy means it is the first choice of any theatre company wishing to demonstrate that they can tackle the genre, and therefore where many prove they can’t. Not for nothing did the makers of The Band Wagon choose Oedipus Rex when they wanted to poke fun at the dreariest, most portentous production of a play imaginable.

Unfortunately, the 2008 King’s production does little to convince me to change my mind on this point. It’s not that it’s particularly bad, though there are a couple of elements that I really don’t care for. It more that the individual bits of the staging don’t hang together as a whole, and everyone seems to be in a different production to everyone else.

At one end is Bryan Kitch (Oedipus), who gives a nuanced performance. If he is a little muted at times, that’s at least partly because the rest of the cast give him so little to work with, the one exception being Eleanor Hanham as Jocasta, who, after a bit of gurning, finally hits the right emotional note in the last lines before she leaves the stage. Oedipus and Creon are costumed alike, in silk pyjamas and floor-length tunics that are open at the front and expose a lot of bare chest (so nothing slashy there, then), but the difference in tone between Kitch’s performance and Miles Galaska’s as Creon is quite jarring.

At the other extreme is Simon Willshire, as the Priest. His performance is the sort of amateur dramatics that is often parodied, being all about reciting the lines, but with no investment of emotion in the performance.

Then there’s the Chorus. When they first enter, the people sitting next to me are suppressing their giggles. I was at first annoyed at the gigglers, but after a moment I could see their point. The Chorus here are like a parody of the worst excesses of nineteen-seventies arty theatre workshop formalistic interpretive dance expressionism and Significance, all black-clad, Meaningful Looks and exaggerated Expressive Movements. Only Charlotte Murrie, Deianeira in last year’s Women of Trachis, is memorable. She has sufficient stage presence to always draw one’s attention.

But even the worst Oedipus often has some good ideas. The National Youth Theatre ended with a festal scene, reminding the audience that Oedipus’ banishment lifts Apollo’s curse from Thebes. A UCL production concluded with Oedipus crouched at the front of the stage, but lit from the footlights, so that he cast a far larger shadow on the backdrop than the elders of Thebes, symbolizing the shadow Oedipus’ legacy will cast over Thebes’ future.

Here the neat idea is that every time someone recounts prophecy, they do so in song. That’s certainly an interesting notion. Modern productions always have a problem with the role of music in Greek theatre, because modern musical theatre is not generally associated with tragic themes, unless it’s full-blown opera. So credit to King’s for trying that. But it’s one of a number of ideas that don’t quite come off. Another is casting women as the shepherds - it is a little jarring when the Theban old man is neither aged in appearance nor a man.

On the other hand, the production can’t be blamed for the failure of the stage hangings to collapse as they should have; ending on the distraught Oedipus and cutting the final Chorus is probably the right thing to do (though I doubt King’s are the first to do that); and it’s nice to see surtitles back (even if sometimes moderately lengthy speeches are reduced to a handful of words).

I should emphasize, as I usually do, that I know these are not professional actors and director, so it is unfair to hold them to professional production standards. And I did see this on the first performance, so it may have improved over the next two nights. (And my opinion is not shared by everyone.) But in general, student productions can, and should be, better than this.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon

2008 UCL Classical Play, Bloomsbury Theatre

Performance seen: 12 February 2008

To demonstrate my point, I need look no further than this year’s UCL play. Again I saw this on the first night, but where King’s had yet to form a coherent whole out of disparate parts, UCL hit the ground running. Well, it’s more like a gentle stroll, but at least they know where they’re going.

I’m slightly surprised that UCL have returned to the Agamemnon so soon. Their last, not too bad, staging of it was in 2002, and in between they have only staged one tragedy, Medea. The corpus of Greek drama isn’t that small.

The first thing one notices, as the Chorus enters whilst the audience settles, is that the production is masked. This is a risky strategy, which can come off, but doesn’t always. The UCL Oedipus in 2000 was masked, and that was awful.

But here the masks work. They give anonymity, and uniformity to the Chorus. Members of the Chorus can play the Watchman in the first half, and Agamemnon in the second, and the switch of the cast can be done invisibly in the interval.

I wonder if the masks also allow the cast to leave their own personas behind, and project themselves into their roles more. Certainly, this production is full of good performances. The Chorus enunciate clearly, and perform well. Minor criticisms can be made - Luke Davies as the Watchman may be a bit quiet, Hugh Viney as Agamemnon a bit wooden, and Sam Smullen’s Herald weakest of all (oddly, as he has the most stage experience). But none of these are bad, and on the other hand, there are two staggeringly good performances. Mimi Kroll as an ebullient Clytemnestra has presence that dominates the whole theatre. And Jessica Lazar as Cassandra gives a portrayal largely lacking the sort of psychobabble that mars many interpretations. She does strip down to her underwear, but at least there’s a justification of that in the text.

Which brings me to Jamal Saleh’s new translation. It’s really quite good. The language owes much to Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and manages to be both comprehensible and bring a nobility to what is said. It does tend to be a bit prolix, which emphasizes that Aeschylus’ individual scenes are a somewhat overlong. This, combined with a hesitancy on the part of some cast members in delivering their lines, drags things out rather, so that it took over two hours, including interval, to get through what is not actually a very long play in relative terms. The credit for a script editor suggests that some judicious cutting took place. A little more wouldn’t have gone amiss.

All this - the masks, the Chorus speaking for the most part one at a time, the language, even the net motif on the stage dressing, foreshadowing Agamemnon’s death - shows a production that is very traditional in its approach. It reminds me strongly of Sir Peter Hall’s 1981 version of Tony Harrison’s translation, almost as if it was influenced by that. The Hall/Harrison version was staged before most of the cast and crew were born, but I wonder if they had access to a recording of it.

Very occasionally the traditionalism doesn’t work. Rolling the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra out on the ekklema was powerful in Hall’s production, because it was in the centre of the stage - here it’s to the side, and easily missed. But overall, there’s nothing wrong with a traditional approach done well, and that is what we have here. It may not be as good as the Medea of 2006, but it’s clearly better than 90% of student/youth productions, and superior to quite a few more lauded professional productions (such as the NT’s Trojan Women).

Since 2006 UCL’s productions have been under the aegis of a Classical Drama Society. I find myself wondering if such a formalized set-up would benefit King’s. Admittedly, last year’s King’s play, though flawed, was better than UCL’s Acharnians. But King’s has never in my experience delivered anything as good as this or the 2006 Medea.

Euripides, Bacchae

Royal Holloway Classics Students, Jane Holloway Hall

Performance seen: 22 February 2008

At the very least one has to admire the Royal Holloway students’ courage in tackling Bacchae so soon after the memorable Alan Cumming production. Wisely, they don’t take the National Theatre of Scotland version on directly. For a start, the pyrotechnics of the latter are wholly impractical for RHUL.

Instead, they apply a series of solutions that are often diametrically opposite to those taken by John Tiffany. This may or may not be deliberate. For a start, instead of visual stimulation they go for an aural approach, with an effective music score underlying the action.

At the centre of the play is the ambiguous figure of Dionysus, existing in a zone of indeterminate gender. The National Theatre of Scotland dealt with this by casting an androgynous man, and have him act effeminately. RHUL cast an androgynous woman and have her act like a man. This is a splendid performance by Madeleine Taylor, the best thing about this production. She is confident and commands the stage.

Emphasizing Dionysus’ masculinity allows Pentheus to be rather more camp, which at least makes more readily explicable his willingness to dress in women’s clothing. My companion on the night felt that the male members of the cast shouted, whilst the women rushed, suggesting a degree of nervousness, though I myself thought that nobody was actually bad, and Mirjam Frank as Agave conveyed her madness without making it seem laughable.

This is the most ‘cheap-and-cheerful’ of the three productions. Royal Holloway do not have the same tradition of mounting Greek plays, and where King’s and UCL play in mostly full theatres, RHUL has a half-empty sports hall. That the hall was half-empty is a shame.

It sounds patronizing to say that this has the feel of a school play, but what I mean by that is the sense of enthusiasm undimmed by a recognition on the players part that they aren’t the most professional cast in the world. It would be fair to say that this is quite a conservative production, with the cast in Grecian dress, and a three-person Chorus that stands and recites rather than moves. But there’s nothing wrong with a conservative production done well, as this is. If the humour of the play is rather lost, the deus ex machina is not marred, as Cumming’s was, by divine petulance (and RHUL recognize that Dionysus in his full godhood requires a costume change). This wasn’t the best production of Euripides that I’ve seen, but at least I didn’t come out thinking ‘What was the point of that?’

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