Director Sam Ward sets the scene for the greatest show on earth…
Why perform ancient drama? The academic benefits of studying the plays should go without saying, but there exists an enduring fascination with staging Greek and Roman tragedy and comedy. This is true despite our limited knowledge of the workings of ancient theatre as well as the many nuances lost in translation (particularly true of comedy). The plays that we ‘bring to life’ through performance probably look rather different to what was presented at the dionysia and in terms of set, character interaction and composition are very basic by modern theatrical standards.
One aspect that lends ancient drama (especially Greek tragedy) well to reinterpretation is its versatility. Unlike Greek comedy, the fantasy elements of tragedy typically come in the setting, placing events in the heroic mythical age of the Iliad where gods and goddesses happily throw their weight around. As a result, changing the fantastical setting is convenient and a can be a powerful statement. This year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival boasted a Trojan Women set in post-1950’s Britain and Agamemnon taking place in a First World War trench. Closer to home are EUTCo’s upcoming performance of Hecuba reimagined by Frank McGuiness and a modern-dress Antigone gracing the Northcott Theatre later this month.
This year’s Classics Play will be something of a departure from the norm, in that it is given a setting more familiar to a contemporary audience. Where previous excellent productions of Euripides’ Bacchae and Hippolytus and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata used traditional or abstract visuals, my take on Sophocles’ Ajax places the tragic drama in a modern conflict zone akin to Iraq or Afghanistan. Still drawing heavily upon the original text (albeit in translation), Ajax in such a context immediately engages with the phenomena of combat trauma and social disintegration in veterans, both very relevant as we begin to process the psychological fallout from a long and difficult campaign in Afghanistan.
Sophocles’ eponymous central figure wasn’t a British soldier. The standards and codes by which he is judged in Sophocles’ play aren’t identical to our own. But maybe this is the allure of using ancient drama as a vessel for performance: words and actions both alien and very human. Ajax is no Hollywood-style drama. His self-killing occurs midway through the piece (spoiler!), leaving the latter half to engage with the rights and status of the fallen; a form rarely seen in the typical ‘life and death of…’ biopics found in cinemas and on the stage.
‘AJAX’ will be a play of dark and light, honour and dishonour, and slightly fewer phallic references than last year’s show. Now, how do I turn the M&D room into a desert without using a few tonnes of sand?
——- ‘AJAX’, an adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy, will be taking place in early March of 2015. For updates, watch this space and the Classics Society Facebook page ——-