Features Published 19 March 2015

Myths of Survival

Classics scholar Emma Cole takes a look at British theatre's current fascination with the Ancient Greeks.
Emma Cole

We might only be three months in, but 2015 is already shaping up to be an overwhelming year for London-based fans of the Greeks. In March alone we’ve seen the opening of Ivo van Hove’s highly anticipated Antigone, followed by the announcement that it will be broadcast on BBC4 in the spring. This follows Pilot Theatre’s take on the same play, which concluded with a live streaming of the production last Saturday. If this wasn’t enough, last Wednesday the Gate Theatre announced that an adaptation of Medea would be included in their Icons and Idols season, and on Thursday morning the Almeida announced their coup de théâter: not one but three Greek tragedies, all headlined by actors with serious star power. And this only scratches the surface. 

As a philhellene I’ll do my utmost to see all the upcoming productions, but there are three that I’m particularly excited about. The first comes from the Almeida season. Most will look forward to the beguiling Ben Whishaw as Dionysus in Rupert Goold’s Bakkhai, but I’m eager for Robert Icke’s Oresteia. This seems a particularly appropriate pairing given Icke’s captivating interrogation into the nature of myth making in last year’s post-apocalyptic Mr Burns. Anne Washburn’s play in itself can be thought of as a metaphor for how we have received ancient tragedy. Like Washburn’s ragbag group of survivors, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides likely recalled their myths for a one-off occasion with no expectation of re-performance. However, by the fourth century BC troops of touring professional actors had created an industry around them. These groups embellished the plays by expanding and altering the dialogue, leading Lycurgus to pass a decree in the 330s BC effectively canonising the extant tragedies by creating official versions from which actors were forbade from deviating. Mr Burns replaced tragedy with popular culture, and changed the setting to the near-distant future, but it interrogated the same process. It seems only fitting that Icke now tackle theatre’s original three-part foundation narrative.

My second pick is Anne-Louise Sarks and Kate Mulvany’s reimaging of Medea from the perspective of the doomed children, a play that premiered at Australia’s Belvoir Theatre in 2012. Christopher Haydon referenced the quality of Belvoir’s Wild Duck, directed by Simon Stone, when contexutalising this programming choice, but the connection between these two productions actually goes far beyond the same home. Sarks acted as dramaturg on Stone’s award-winning Thyestes, which shortly opens in Paris and remains one of my all-time favourite tragedy productions. Thyestes was in equal parts violent, grueling, electrifying, and heart breaking, and I’m anticipating nothing less from this Medea. The potential for exploring Medea from the children’s perspective was touched upon in the opening moments of the National’s 2014 Medea, and the middle act of the durational Hotel Medea, in which the audience was actually positioned as the children. Judging from my reaction to these poignant moments, I expect this full-length exploration in the intimate Gate theatre to be particularly affective.

Yet the production I’m most excited about is not one of these tragedies, but rather the National Theatre Wales’ take on the Iliad. Performing epic is no mean feat, but I’m confident that Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes’ production will deliver. Pearson and Brookes last took on the Greeks in 2010, when they staged Aeschylus’ Persians in Cilieni Village, a mock-Soviet military training base in Brecon Beacons, Wales. This village stands on land that the Ministry of Defence compulsorily requisitioned from Mynydd Epynt in 1940, displacing 219 individuals and 54 homes in the process.

This location has intriguing parallels with the original performance environment of Aeschylus’ 472 BC tragedy. The Persians depicts the defeat of King Xerxes and his Persian fleet in the 480 BC Battle of Salamis. The Theatre of Dionysus, situated high upon the Athenian acropolis, looks out towards where this battle occurred. The audience’s vista was consequently ghosted by the battle that is depicted in the play, and Tom Holland has even argued that this ghosting encroached upon the spectators’ tactile senses, positing that the bleachers the audience sat upon were constructed out of timbers from the ruined Persian fleet.

The recent insertion of Aeschylus’ Persians into land owned by the MoD and associated with people displacement foregrounded the tragedy’s thematic relevance to the present moment. Although the homologies between Aeschylus’ performance environment and the Cilieni village are limited, each similarly allowed spectators to experience tragedy spatially and to connect narrative to both a wider historical discourse and to one’s personal experiences. Barely anything is currently known about Pearson and Brookes’ Iliad, only that it will take place on a “vast, cinematic landscape”, and that audiences can see the production in four separate sections, or in either an all-day or all-night durational instalment. Yet their attitude to the Persians speaks volumes about what we might expect from this undertaking, and so I’m already planning my trip to Wales.

All of this begs the question of what it is about the Greeks that has us so fixated right now. Of course, there is no simple answer, but we can hazard a few guesses. On an obvious level there is a financial factor at play. Greek tragedy is an attractive option in times of austerity, and it is noteworthy that we are only seeing the most familiar tragedies, rather than experiments with less known or fragmentary ones. Casting high-profile actors in iconic roles is a sure way of getting bums on seats, and there is the added benefit of not needing to buy performance rights unless utilising a newly written version. Yet putting this interest down to pure economics belies the significance of what is going on. We are currently living in a time of international social upheaval, and I have no doubt that our current obsession with these plays lies in the core debates about humanity, religion, war, and democracy that they embody, and the immediacy with which these themes speak to us right now. They resonate powerfully with modern crises, and in doing so offer a flickering light of hope: we’ve survived this before, and we’ll do it once more, with Tiresias yet again as our guide.

Emma Cole is a third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Greek and Latin at University College London, where she is completing a thesis on the reception of ancient tragedy in postdramatic theatre. She previously worked as a freelance dramaturg for companies such as Playwriting Australia, and has a forthcoming academic publication on Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy. 

Photo: Jan Versweyveld.

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