Trueblood Theatre, University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
Thursday, October 27th, 1994
Reviewed by Kate Mendeloff
Residential College Drama Concentation
University of Michigan
As a theatre director and educator presently evolving a new version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, I was curious and excited to see the Aquila Productions version of the play. I have been working with Didaskalia editor Sallie Goetsch on an interpretation of the play in the context of the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which is surely the unhealed wound in the American psyche. In this interpretation Philoctetes is a veteran of that war and his sense of betrayal finds a modern resonance with the attitude of many Vietnam veterans. (See 'Translating Philoctetes--with help from the actors', Didaskalia 1.3, for more details on that project.)
But this is an American perspective, and Aquila is a British company. I had had the opportunity to discuss the concept with the translator and director last spring and again at a symposium we organized at the University of Michigan before their peformance here, so I knew that they had chosen to look back to ancient Celtic history to tell their story. They chose a world where a longbow could indeed be the most powerful of weapons. Also, because of their particular casting needs, they chose a world where women could be warriors.
Aquila is a touring company so casting choices as well as design decisions are influenced by the limitations of space and personnel. In creating the design the director had to find a way to carry the cave of Philoctetes in one suitcase. The only scenic element in the production is a huge piece of painted silk cloth, suspended from the ceiling, which serves as sails, ocean, craggy hillside, cave and the supernatural presence of Herakles.The silk created simple but evocative visual effects. The first scene with Odysseus and Neoptolemus was played on the ship with the two actors rocking from side to side while the others knelt around the silk and created the stormy sea around them. The Greeks landed on Lemnos and began their search for Philoctetes by crawling over rocks formed by bodies crouched under the fabric.
The most intriguing choice in the Aquila production was to make Philoctetes a low-status character. I had envisioned him as noble and heroic, but this Philoctetes was closer in status to the common soldier, as represented by the chorus, than to Neoptolemus or Odysseus. I think this makes sense. His relationship to the chorus becomes more understandablewhen they are grunts together. This choice also meant that there was a good deal of humor in the play, because Philoctetes was cheerful and pathetic--rather a Stan Laurel figure. He was slight and wiry with a lopsided grin, hopping grotesquely on his one good foot. He also was played with a broad accent which reinforced the class and ethnic differences between him and the other principals.
The chorus was represented by two tall blond women, both dressed in rough tunics, rude armor and blue war paint. They showed two very different attitudes towards Philoctetes. One was impatient with him and somewhat condescending and the other was sympathetic to his plight. They were both physically larger than Philoctetes and therefore made convincing guards. But agsin, the fact that they were of his class made the relationships very effective. You could sense that the one woman was disappointed because Philoctetes was letting them down by his whining instead of bearing up and showing the commanders that he was up to the task at hand.
This class difference between Philoctetes and the generals is an excellent choice. In his strongest speeches Philoctetes expresses his sense of betrayal and abandonment. The leaders used him and left him to die when he became a burden to them. They don't care about the common soldier. This is a resonance within our Vietnam analogy also: the term sprayed and betrayed alludes to the use of the defoliant Agent Orange which has created serious health problems for veterans ten and twenty years after the war.
The lower-class take on Philoctetes also helps explain his relationship with Neoptolemus and why he looks up to a boy who is half his age. In this production, again for practical reasons, Neoptolemus was played by a woman. But unlike the chorus, who were clearly meant to be women warriors, Neoptolemus, although acted by a woman, was supposed to be a boy. This created some problems. The choice to make the boy so young made the role rather less complex. I see Neoptolemus as the center of the play and his moral decision to return the bow as its central action. Neoptolemus comes of age through his relationship with Philoctetes, and this was not as evident in Aquila's production as I would have liked. However, playing Neoptolemus as young and Philoctetes as weak did work well at the end of the play, allowing the audience to accept that this boy and the servile, pathetic Philoctetes could believe in miracles and would passionately attach themselves to salvation from a God.
I applaud Aquila for their production of this demanding play. It was visually stunning and the interpretation raised and answered many interesting questions.The company is touring Philoctetes along with Aristophanes' Wasps and Shakespeare's MacBeth in an American season this spring. For information about their schedule contact the producer, Peter Meineck, through the Classics Department of the University of Texas at Austin.