11 November 2006

Dear Sophocles

I don't enjoy reading your plays. Or those of Euripides or Aeschylus, for that matter. It's probably in large part a language thing: not many people read Ancient Greek these days, and I count myself among their unhappy number. The very structures of language have changed since your day, to the extent that a literal translation is no longer even a plausible pretence, as it just about is from French or German. Still, most of your translators are academics attempting just that, and coming up with playtexts that smell like 2,000 years of dust.

Added to that, I've never seen a classical Greek play in production that I've enjoyed. Highly competent productions in obviously highly competent translations have moved me to nothing even resembling catharsis. Perhaps this is due to the extraordinary alien-ness of the world. I simply cannot empathise with characters whose worldview is predicated on their being controlled by the fates and the whims of capricious gods. Even before I read Marx, even before I abandoned christianity at aged 13, I couldn't share that view.

But good theatre, like good novels, ought to be able to take me to this alien world and help me share an experience of it. I may not be able philosophically to get along with your work, but if I were only capable of enjoying plays about people like me I'd be a startling egotist. No, the problem is not that I haven't succeeded in identifying with these people, this worldview. The problem is that the productions haven't. They've understood it on an intellectual, rather than an intuitive level and shown what it means, rather than how it feels. To feel I understand is far more powerful than to think I do.

There are three partial exceptions. The first is Katie Mitchell's production of Iphigenia at Aulis, shown at the National a couple of years ago. Theatrically this was astonishingly bold. It was studiedly undramatic: moments were missed, lines were mumbled. A fourth wall was partially built out of suitcases and any emoting that was done was done while facing upstage. At one point about seventy suitcases were brought in and counted. Someone lost count so they were counted again, all of which took about fifteen minutes. During this time no drama was obvious. Imagine Euripides' play performed by Forced Entertainment. The sheer insolence of this approach made it all quite gripping, and when the big moments came - and they were big moments - they had more power than if a great deal of effort had been expended on setting up high stakes. Whether I felt I understood this alien world is another matter.

The second is Kneehigh's production of the Bacchae, again about two years ago (that's also Euripides, isn't it? You'll wonder why I'm writing to you and not him. It'll become clear). When I remember this show I do so fondly, as it was the usual Kneehigh fun and games. Interestingly in this context, one of the first things that happened was a mini-lecture on the Greek metaphysical order, a cheeky bit of exposition made acceptable by its not pretending to be anything else. This succeeded principally in rendering the Greek metaphysical order a subject for fun, but at least it didn't just assume we knew what it was. When I remember the show I do so fondly, but when I think about it in this context I remember its faults. The transition from Bacchic joy to its horrible consequences was more of a lurch than a development - in part because the audience were never permitted to share the Bacchic joy, instead laughing at it hard. And when that transition was made, it came at the expense of any audience contact; the show retreated from us. So this one was tremendously enjoyable, but not a success on the terms under discussion.

Then last night I saw a production of your Ajax, directed by my friend George Rodosthenous. It was reminiscent of Kneehigh in that it was a complete re-rendering of the text, but aside from that it was completely its own thing. Scrupulously modernised, it became about a modern day (Gulf?) war. And it erased all reference to the Greek social order. Athena became the Defence Minister and all other references to the gods became references to God. It was the first time I've seen a Greek tragedy and felt that it was truly tragic. Why?

I don't think it's because of the re-vision of the metaphysical order. I think the same effects would, if anything, have been stronger for the "workings of fate" business. No, it worked so well because it created atmospheres rather than ideas. Any scenes that were led by two or three people having a conversation were pretty below par, exhibitions of intensity to no particular purpose, unleavened by sensitivity or gentleness. But when the full machinery of the production got going - led by George's magnificent music - it really whipped up a storm. Ajax's death came after a party sequence featuring frenetic Greek dancing, and the juxtapotion was astonishing. All of the set-pieces were just as strong. When Ajax's daughter sang a lament over his dead body - the first song in the show - it was breathtakingly powerful despite the fact that she wasn't much of a singer.

So my thinking is now that the way to make plays like yours work is through massive ensemble commitment and radical revision of the text. And for the first time ever, I've a desire to give one a go. Devising a version of the text is the only way to go. Perhaps a future Strange Bedfellows project? I'll let you know. But first of all, I'll need to read some of them...


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