Staging the Classics

“Death, robbing my eyes of light,

Give back to the world it’s untarnished purity!”

Dancer Gertrud Frith in Medea

Racine’s words through Phaedra’s lips could be the coda for Ancient Greek tragedy. Through the death of the tragic hero, the world of the play is cleansed and the audience having, “ridden the waves of a ship at sea in a hurricane” is returned safely to shore. When done right, the audience shares the emotional journey of the main characters. They, too, are purged and catharsis is served across the divide.

For the Ancient Greek theatre-goer attending the Festival was a religious experience. They went there to be entertained, to be instructed and to be cleansed. The plots, lifted from their religious histories were parables to be learnt from. The Gods, ever close, were powerful onlookers in the drama. They held fate in their palms. They could be outraged or appeased through curses cast, supplications entreated and taboos broken

Magic and superstition are used in the plots like weapons of war.The heroes may refuse to worship a particular god. They may break a taboo. They may entreat the intervention of the Gods in an act of revenge. Their aim is to influence their own or another character’s destiny. In so doing they empower themselves to walk amongst the immortals. The gods hear their echoing hubris and they act swiftly to silence the cacophony.

Ancient Greece was a deterministic, patriarchal society that was suspicious, at best, of foreigners. Its stage reflects this.

Again and again the great tragedians preach against pride but not in a modern sense. The hero must never place him/herself above his/her humanly station. They must wear their  dignity without coddling themselves in ego. Not an easy labour when you consider that the hero was a public figure. His/her decisions were speculated upon in a voyeuristic society. . Personal honour and reputation modulated the hero’s behaviour. The chorus’ judgments were tweeted away as the hero came to terms with his/her crisis. Tweeted is perhaps an understatement, (but I hope my analogy works.) Ancient Greece was a more discerning society than our own. It wouldn’t settle for the modern adage, ” All publicity is good publicity.”

There is a lot of assumed knowledge in a classic text, whether it is Racine or Euripides. Having endured the test of time these plays come to us in print together with pages of end notes, modern translations and dense introductions that reveal their contexts. A theatre-goer should never leave the theatre feeling puzzled as to the intent of the production. So how do we make a play written beyond the barricade of history speak to us today?

A director looking to stage a classic will be drawn to a text that strikes a cord. From the Ancient Greek repertoire, Euripides’ call is clearest heard.

Then to informing today’s audience about the erks of Ancient Greek society, religion and mythology without handing them a history book before the lights go dim. This is wrapped up with the interpretation of the script. Does the director present a historically accurate adaptation complete with masks and chorus or modernize it with a more naturalistic approach? What about deconstructing the text? To deconstruct the text assumes a deep and thorough understanding of the text, its problems and the intention of the playwright. When done well, the original ideas become clearer.

I like deconstruction, it’s used across the board of theatrical arts. When an actor prepares s/he deconstructs the meaning of her/his lines. Her/his emotional memory is called forth to experience the necessary empathy. When the production designer visualizes the performance space s/he has taken the themes of the drama and created a physical metaphor.The risk of choosing deconstruction is the ease in which personal responses to the plot can suffocate the original intention of the playwright. How far should a text be deconstructed – all the way to abstraction?

The next hurdle is deciding how to deal with the chorus. Get rid of it altogether? Allot personalities to lines and cast them as definite characters? Employ a choreographer or orchestrate movement techniques to keep it relevant within the flow of the narrative? Dealing with a chorus can be complex and time consuming. Each actor must have a relevant role to fulfill to add value to the effectiveness of the group and there can be long periods of silent stage time for an individual chorus member. If one chorus member becomes disengaged, it can upstage the reality of the whole.

Finally, the pivotal decision the director is called to make is how real to make his production. By real I mean relevant. Sometimes abstracting provides the most real experience. But not always. Sometimes the most traditional rendering is the most powerful. So long as the playwright’s concern is still relevant today.

I had the pleasure of attending Aim Dramatic Arts school’s performance of Hell Hath No Fury, on the weekend. It was a retelling of the myths of Medea, Elektra and Phaedra. Each myth was handled differently with varying success. The performances were experiences in: a more or less traditional interpretation; a very clever deconstruction; and abstraction. The performances are the inspiration behind his post and the next as well. I wish the students of the school opportunity, serendipity and many more performances.

 

Photo credit: ADiamondFellFromTheSky / FoterCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

 

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