Greek Plays at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August-September 1994

Reviewed by Antony G. Keen,
School of Greek, Roman and Semitic Studies,
Queen's University of Belfast,
5 University Square,
BT7 1NN,
Northern Ireland,
United Kingdom

According to the Fringe Programme, there were four hundred and sixty-six plays in the Edinburgh Fringe this year. Given that, it is not surprising that a number of these productions were either revivals of ancient theatre, or based on Graeco-Roman myths, though not as many as you might possibly expect; there were in the programme seven productions of Greek plays -- three Aristophanes (though one of these was ultimately cancelled), two Sophocles (both Antigone) and one each of Aeschylus and Euripides. There were in addition another five plays based on Classical themes. With only five days in Edinburgh it was, of course, impossible to see all of these productions -- I particularly regret missing Pericles and I, a dramatisation of Pericles' life and loves -- but there follow short notes on those I did see.

Nottinghamshire Education Theatre Company's production of The Women of Troy displayed considerable promise. A cast of teenagers presented a vivid and enthusiastic take on the play, deliberately resonant of events in the former Yugoslavia. There were some fine performances, though on the whole the female performers did better than the males. Talthybius was rather wooden at first, though was better when he brought Hecuba the news that Astyanax was to die, and Menelaus was a dull-minded thug. Balancing this was a fine performance from Hecuba, maintaining her dignity as her world was torn apart, though Cassandra was a little over-enthusiastic and Helen was miscast. The poorest aspect to this was the use of female performers of lead roles to beef out the Chorus; it was a little off-putting having watched Cassandra dragged off by the Greek soldiers to see her re-emerge in the Chorus.

'Z' Theatre Company's Libation Bearers was a brave choice given the presence of Peter Stein's Oresteia in the official festival, but they did tackle the play with some imagination. Clytemnestra's costume, bin-bags over plastic hoops, was a mistake and looked ludicrous, and the Chorus were somewhat artificial , as they tend to be, but delivered their lines with some intensity, sometimes right into the faces of the front row of the audience. Orestes emerged from among their number, which made the Chorus seem even more conspiratorial than they already are in Aeschylus' text. Most imaginative of all was the greater involvement of Electra, by ingenious use of music and giving Electra about half of Orestes' lines in the murder scene, and the suggestion that the act of murdering her mother destroyed what little was left of Electra's sanity. One wonders whether the director had also read Sophocles' version of the legend.

Instant Classics' production of The Birds was one of the best and funniest Aristophanes productions I've seen. David Cottis' translation was extremely free with Aristophanes' text, full of corny gags, comments on the text (a well- performed scene where Euelpides [here played by Catherine Alexander] suddenly discovered that she wasn't in the play anymore was a particular favourite). No doubt many of the references will be as obscure to people in 4500 AD as Aristophanes' are today (in fact, some of the references to mid- seventies pop records passed over the heads of a 1994 audience). That is, of course, as it should be; a modern audience reacts far better to an architect who's found the Barbican's fifth floor than to Meton famous for Colonus. Cottis' text and direction was aided considerably by his cast, who leapt into the text and it's near-doggerel verse with relish.

Moscow Theatre Company's Medea is not Euripides' text, but a version by J. Anouilh. This has a rather different emphasis; the aspects of divinity that lend point to Euripides are eliminated and Jason is presented much more sympathetically, as a man who has no choice but to marry Creon's daughter. This, to my mind, deprives the legend of much of its power, and unfortunately this production had little to make up for it. It was intriguing at first to see the use of a Russian peasants' hut as the basis for the action, but though there were some good performances, by E. Makhonina as Medea and R. Ryazanova as her nurse and unwilling accomplice, much of the effect was marred by a sometimes-inaudible simultaneous English translation, delivered with all the passion of a UN interpreter.

Tmu-Na Theatre's Meeting Cassandra was a most intriguing piece. An actress (played by Antonia Smits) comes on stage to play Cassandra; she senses that Apollo is in the audience; gradually her personality and that of Cassandra merge, and Apollo and the audience become as one to her. The precise point that the piece is making is not always clear, but as Cassandra/the actress parades about the stage, rolls on a stocking, smears lipstick on her face, shoulders and breasts, one is made to feel uncomfortable about the element of voyeurism that exists in a theatrical production.

Antony G. Keen

Antony Keen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ancient Greek History at the Queen's University of Belfast.