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Keeping Classics Alive

by on 17 November 2019

Not Engraved in Stone

Keeping Classics Alive

by Tamsin Shasha

Actors of Dionysus at the Athenæum Club, Pall Mall, 14th November

Review by Mark Aspen

What you can learn under the auspices of Actors of Dionysus is surprisingly broad: for example how to get into the Athenæum Club without a tie (succeed) or a cure for impotence (failed)! I speak not for myself about either subterfuge you understand, but I can tell you the secret of the first … you wear a dog collar and say you are a clergyman!

However the most enriching thing you can learn with Actors of Dionysus is the vibrancy and vivacity that springs from the Classics and that has made Classical drama the most fertile ground AoD_Medea 1for the imagination of the possible and for the understanding of humanity, a ground that even after two-and-a-half millennia still bears precious fruit. AoD quotes from Pericles, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others”. For this is what AoD as a thriving company has striven to do over the twenty-six years of its existence, since it was formed in the summer of 1993 as the brainchild of eminent classicist and translator David Stuttard and a band of like-minded individuals, including Tamsin Shasha, the director of the current evening’s performance.

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There is a strong evangelical element to AoD and it has an active educational outreach to schools and colleges, with a view to inspiring the young of the 21st century and firing them up to as much a love of the Classics as AoD itself has. It is however a highly successful producing company whose approach is to enhance the Classics with lively translations and an innovative approach. Hence its 2015 production of Medea featured aerial ballet, whereas the 2017 version of Antigone used drones flying above its austere set. If this sounds gimmicky, think again, for these approaches are beautifully relevant and inform the narrative.

Nevertheless, it is the power of the ancient texts that shines through as the guiding beacon in AoD’s work, and this was consummately exhibited in this private event at the Athenæum Club, where a specially invited audience witnessed the skills of the actors at the core of the company.

As an exemplar of AoD’s specialism in Greek drama in English translation, the performance that was offered took place within the plush, leather and oak surroundings of the Athenæum’s Smoking Room, hence without set, and also without costumes, the actors being clad in simple stage black. Consequently, the focus was on the text, the acting and voices of the performers, who included a chorus of singers from Vocal Explosion.

The pieces chosen were from two of the most archetypical of Greek tragedies, Aeschylus’ trilogy The Oresteia (Ὀρέστεια) and The Women of Troy (Τρῳάδες) of Euripides. Both these plays deal with the aftermath of the Trojan War, seen from different perspectives and from two sides of the Aegean Sea. The subject of The Women of Troy is the suffering of the noblewomen of the defeated royalty of Troy, now prisoners of war of the Greeks, and this was the centrepiece of the evening’s performance. An extract from this play was proceeded by a soliloquy from Agamemnon (Ἀγαμέμνων). Agamemnon concerns the fatal consequences of the eponymous Greek hero’s decade-long absence from his wife, Clytemnestra, the Queen of Mycenae.

In this production the traditional Greek chorus, omnisciently commenting on the action of the play, was absent and reflected instead by singing of the Vocal Explosion chorus. Its conductor and soloist is Juliet Russell, an international award-winning composer, but known at the choir’s base city of Brighton for the annual Burning the Clocks mid-winter festival. Specialising in Georgian and Corsican music, Vocal Explosion is a world music choir, but here its music edged towards the otherworldly, ethereal and haunting. Its main a cappella phrasing was from the phoneme of the sounds that form the basis of classical and European languages, dissociated from the connotations of the words themselves. A hair-raising buzz of intoned murmurs, punctuated by a staccato “ma, ma” sound introduced the entrance of Clytemnestra.

Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia trilogy begins with the news that, after a decade’s absence, King Agamemnon is returning home, having, with the other Greeks been victorious in the war against Troy. A watchman, seeing the signal beacons, has expressed his joy, but has indicted that all has not been well at home. Queen Clytemnestra, in a long soliloquy, describes the scene from her vantage point on the battlements of the clifftop palace. Dissembling, she expresses her elation, but disguises the resentment that she feels for Agamemnon, and that she is seeking revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, but she does not let on that she has been having an adulterous affair with Aegisthus, rival to Agamemnon. Established actress and drama academic, Catherine Livesey was bitingly incisive in the role of Clytemnestra, with that edge of a woman who says one thing, thinks another; who plans to get even, and has the ruthlessness to carry out those plans.

We were indeed literally having some very nice canapés, but if Livesey’s Clytemnestra was the picante starter course for the evening’s figurative gourmandising on the classics, then the rich meaty course was the excerpt from Euripides’ The Women of Troy. Troy has fallen, and the women of the royal family lament that their city has been plundered, their husbands and sons killed, and they are to be taken away as concubines or slaves of the Greeks. The princess Cassandra has been raped (and later, as the forced concubine of Agamemnon, will be murdered by Clytemnestra) and the young princess Polyxena has been killed as a sacrifice to the Greek warrior Achilles. Generally, there is about as much mayhem as it is possible to imagine. But there is worse to come, a Greek herald arrives to tell the princess Andromache, widow of Hector, that that her baby, the Prince Astyanax, is condemned to death. The Greeks do not want to risk the boy growing up and avenging his father.

The Greek herald, Talthybius is one of Euripides’ most three-dimensional characters. Here is a man torn between his duty and his conscience. He is a soldier obeying the order to take Astyanax, but deeply troubled the prospect of having the blood of an innocent baby on his hands. Matt Barber (whom we have recently seen in the thrillers, The Frightened Lady and The Lady Vanishes) expressed the aching dichotomy of this humane man with a keen-edged incisiveness.

AoD AA2The last member of the Trojan royal family to hold the baby is his grandmother, the dethroned Queen Hekabe. This role was brilliantly acted by Annette Andre, the prolific and much feted television and film actress of the swinging decades, who portrayed Hekabe with heart-rending intensity. “Here lies a little boy, whom the Greeks killed because they feared him so much.” Andre in fact stepped into the role at the last minute with consummate ease, witness to her wide experience, which has ranged from ballet to musicals, including the (sort-of) classical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

AoD AA1In the bitter catalogue of suffering that is The Women of Troy, the fate of Andromache is arguably the worse. Her husband, Hector has been killed by Achilles. Their baby son, Astyanax is now to be killed Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son by throwing the baby from the city walls. Neoptolemus is to take Hector’s brother, Helenus, as his slave, and the devastated Andromache is to become his concubine, effectively Neoptolemus’ perpetual sex slave in the context of the brutality of Classical warfare. Tamsin Shasha is a foremost Classical tragic actress and she is outstanding in the role of Andromache. Phrases such as “pouring out his life” flow straight form her soul, but she knows how to use brief silences to overwhelming effect.

 

In the hands of Actors of Dionysus, The Women of Troy is not a withering curiosity of 2,435 years ago, but a real event happening now. Both the cast and the audience were moved beyond tears at the enormity of the agonising torment of these real women.

AoD PasqualeHowever Actors of Dionysus are not all about tragedy, witness their acclaimed 2016 production of Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ political satire cum out-and-out sex-romp. It was in this vein that AoD showcase was rounded off by a surprise appearance of the famous stand-up comedian Joe Pasquale. Pasquale’s well-known idiosyncratic voice, which he himself described as like “Noddy with a hernia” is not suited to acting the Classics he said, but then went on to prove himself wrong. He is in fact a very versatile straight actor and writer, as well as being a sought-after comedian. (He is appearing this winter as Wishee Washee in Aladdin at the Milton Keynes Theatre.) Our invited audience of classicists and Greek theatre lovers immediately warmed to his open, self-deprecating style, which was full of wit and certainly very funny. Pasquale’s all too short performance was of snippets of Classical poetry and prose or of parodies thereof. Many revolved around the primordial god, Eros as the god of lust. Oh, and it is the greybeard Eros in his later years who is searching for the cure for impotence.

And eh!  Pasquale managed to get into the Athenæum Club without a tie or a dog collar. A quick wit clearly opens doors and as just well, for without him our gourmet soiree of the Classics would not have had its dessert course.

Mark Aspen
November 2019

Photography courtesy of Actors of Dionysus, Katerina Kalogeraki and Joe Pasquale

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