Epic and Tragic Performances, Ancient and Modern
Emma Griffiths reflects on some resonances between ancient and modern in contemporary performances of epic and drama.
Earlier this year a group of students came with me to see Simon Armitage’s new play Last Days of Troy. After the show, conversation touched upon many subjects (Was Paris completely naked under that sheet? Was Priam really in ‘Only Fools and Horses’?), including the ethical issues raised by the story, the relationship between ancient and modern, and the problem of creating satisfying drama from epic poetry – Sophocles’ plays may have been described as ‘scraps from Homer’s banquet’, but the Greek tragic playwrights tended to focus on small, discrete episodes from the Trojan War, With this in mind, it seemed like a good point to take stock of some of the productions I’ve seen this year, and reflect on how each play has informed my own view of the ongoing dialogue between ancient and modern worlds – this is part one.
Last year, I gave a talk for the School’s programme of WW I events, looking at mud. We’re familiar with images from the trenches, where the mud sucked down men and animals, but my focus was on an equally deadly, literary mud: In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles rages over the death of Patroclus, and we see the only genuine threat to Achilles in the poem so far – the river Skamander prepares to overwhelm him – it will pour forth such a stream of mud that Achilles will be obliterated, forgotten and deprived of glory.
Juxtaposing this passage with the imagery of the trenches, my talk explored ideas of glory, heroism and the dangers of nature which characterise much modern understanding of the First World War. It’s well known that classical literature had an impact on a generation of men who were inspired to fight in 1914 (see Elizabeth Vandiver’s excellent book, Stand in the Trenches, Achilles), but ideals of glory derived from the Iliad cannot incorporate this threat of nature overwhelming civilization – my question for the audience was this, ‘If the powers-that-be had really known their Homer, and had really understood the warnings about the power of nature, might reports from the trenches have given them pause? Might the war have ended sooner or differently?’
Discussions with the audience after the talk provoked some lively debate about modern education and Homer’s intentions, before eventually we came to ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ – has the final scene of poppy fields ever been bettered as a visual image to provoke tragedy in the midst of comedy? This final point, about translating history and epic poetry into a dramatic form, with its limitations and new potentials, was clear in my mind as I went straight from the talk to the cinema that evening. This rare trip out on a school night was to see the RSC live broadcast of Shakespeare’s Richard II at a central Manchester cinema. For the record, I should say that I love the immediacy of live theatre, and I was initially sceptical about the idea of seeing a live production beamed into a cinema – would the popcorn, and strange lighting make this seem more like seeing ‘Star Wars’ rather than gut-wrenching, tear jerking Shakespearean tragedy? I was also hesitant about seeing this particular play, because I saw Kevin Spacey’s version many years ago, and came out completely unmoved and rather confused. However, I was lucky enough to see David Tennant as Hamlet at Stratford, so I was willing to trust his Shakespearan credentials. And it was magnificent. Yes, you miss the spine-tingling buzz of being in the theatre, but on the other hand, you have more comfortable seats and the benefit of close-ups. Seeing a play in a cinema is a completely different experience, but once you accept it for what it is, it’s wonderful. I have nothing but admiration for the minds who conceived and executed this programme of live broadcasts – it was flawless.
As for the production itself – amazing. Tennant was a terrifying and tragic king, Henry Bollinger was both plausible and a monster, and there wasn’t a single weak performance in the play. During the interval there was an interview with Jane Lapotaire, returning to the stage after a long illness, which provided a perfect example of the love and intelligence that goes into producing theatre. Although the play stayed with Shakespeare’s words and period costumes, it was a wonderful model for how drama can touch a modern audience without the need for explicit modernisation.
Go to the next post for some news on forthcoming productions of Greek drama…