Monday, March 08, 2010

KCL and UCL Greek Plays 2010

Aeschylus, Persians
2010 King’s Greek Play, Greenwood Theatre
Performance seen: 11 February 2010

It is, as the programme notes, quite surprising that the King's Greek Play has never tackled Aeschylus' Persians before. It's a regularly studied text, because of its uniqueness as the only surviving tragedy based on historical events (indeed, events within the lifetime of the audience, featuring onstage depiction of at least one person who was still alive when the play premiered in 472 BCE). So this year, King's took on the challenge of that work.

As is often the case with King's productions, it was okay, though nothing that enormously impressed me. One potential problem with Persians is that it can end up looking very static, and in fairness, this was well-dealt with. The Chorus was used to add movement, and to underline the dialogue through their actions. There are some nods towards tradition, notably in the half-masks worn by the cast.

Other aspects were less successful. Breaking the Messenger down into two roles was innovative, but I thought they were rather aggressive towards Atossa, who is, after all, supposed to be their Queen. And having Xerxes come on stage dressed a bloodied armed soldier misses Aeschylus' point, which is made pretty explicitly in the text: Xerxes has run away from the fight before actually seeing combat, has torn his own rich oriental dress, as a woman would do, and has nothing manly about him at all.

The best performer was Petros Boutros-Vallinatos as Darius, who confidently delivered his dialogue. Charlotte Maskell as Atossa, the Persian Queen, was rather more muted, though hers is the largest part, and therefore the hardest to learn in Greek.

As with last year's Lysistrata one felt that a little more rehearsal was needed. Atossa forgot some of her lines, the Chorus were not always in unison, and the surtitles were often badly out of sync with what was actually being said. But, as ever, one must make allowances for student productions - these are not professionals, and delivering a play in a language that is not your own is difficult.

Aeschylus' Oresteia Parts II and III: Choephori and Eumenides
2010 UCL Greek and Latin Classical Play, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre
Performance seen: 12 February 2010

I would extend the same allowances to the UCL Classical Play, if they ever showed any sign of needing them. Not every UCL production is first-rate - Acharnians in 2007 was a bit weak - but it's been a long time since there was a terrible production, and more often than not, the UCL productions get it right. Of course, they do have some advantages. The need to deliver the text in Greek restricts the pool of performers from which King's can draw - UCL, in contrast, can throw a wider net, which brings in people with considerable experience of the amateur, and in some cases professional, stage. And the benefits show. (Tonight I'm off to see a performance by King's students in English, which may be a fairer comparison.)

Following on from the successful Agamemnon of 2008, in 2010 UCL decided to stage the remaining two plays from the Oresteia trilogy. The burden was eased by giving the two plays to different directors.* This ambitious scheme pays off.

Despite featuring the killing of Clytemnestra, Choephori can easily get slightly lost as the middle play, between Agamemnon and Eumenides. This production brings it into focus. Where Lisa Gosbee's Agamemnon had used masks, here she takes a more naturalistic approach (though still not entirely naturalistic). Highlights of this were the opening entrance of the Chorus, to the sound of a single clear, beautiful voice, and a strong Electra. (Though unfortunately there were a couple of times when members of the Chorus forgot their lines.)

Eumenides was done very differently, in a far more stylized approach. The ghost of Clytemnestra is projected on a screen. The Furies are whiteface goths in tutus. But it works, and doesn't jar with the approach in Choephori. I might have hoped for a more menacing Athena when she speaks to the Furies (underneath Athena's consoling words, I always feel, is an implicit message that in any fight, Athena will not be the loser), but that's a personal bee in my bonnet.

Overall then, two different, complementary and both well-done plays from UCL. I look forward to next year's performance.

* Unfortunately, I have mislaid my programme, so can give no names. I will rectify this as soon as I can.

1 comment:

Fran Paterson said...

Having been there myself last year, I truly think you underestimate the difficulty of acting in ancient Greek. Not only are you acting in a language that is not your own, you are acting in a language that no one (let alone you and co-stars and the crew organising the surtitles up in the lighting box) still speaks. Many of the cast this year and last had never even studied ancient Greek before. You are therefore twice removed from the text: thinking in English and speaking what can best be described as gobbledegook. It's incredibly difficult to blag a forgotten line in ancient Greek. I can genuinely say that it is the most nerve-wracking experience you can put yourself through onstage, whether or not you've acted before. All the training and rehearsal goes out the window when your mind goes blank and you realise that you can't just make something up to get out of a situation. But that's all part of the thrill.

The fact that the cast manage to get any kind of emotional nuances into their performances every year is a miracle in itself: the fact that they put on imaginative and entertaining shows every year even more so.