Report from Western Australia

by Judith Maitland
The Department of Classics and Ancient History
The University of Western Australi
E-mail: jmaitla@cyllene.uwa.edu.au

This year, the Department of Classics and Ancient History has been involved in two productions, Euripides' Medea and Aristophanes' Lysistrata. I was invited to direct Medea for the Graduate Dramatic Society, and saw no reason to pass up the opportunity. The department's annual comedy production, which I also direct, was scheduled for the following month, so some careful planning was called for.

The first step was to prepare the scripts. I prefer to translate a play as part of the staging process, but in the case of Lysistrata a splendid translation by a colleague was already in existence. John Melville Jones had prepared this in 1959 for Jeanna Bradley's production in the University's Sunken Garden, a delightful open air venue now fallen into disuse due to increased traffic noise from the nearby highway. The translation was somewhat cautious, to use the translator's term, so John Melville Jones kindly gave permission for me to add frank and fearless revisions where necessary. Accordingly, both scripts were ready by April of this year.


presented by the Graduate Dramatic Society Dolphin Theatre
The University of Western Australia
June 26th-29th, July 3rd-6th
Director - Judith Maitland
Music - Philip Korn
Masks - Linda Old
Lighting - Malcolm Crisp and Natasha Kepert Set design - Jane Pestell- Lytton
Translation - Judith Maitland

Working with experienced actors, most of whom had themselves directed productions, made it possible to give more thought to questions of dramaturgy. The members of the company were keen to know more about the myth of Medea, its place in history, and its significance as a subject of public performance in fifth-century Athens. Many sessions during the early stage of rehearsals were extended into what we laughingly called Ancient History lessons, as the old tale began to cast its spell. Indeed, such was the brooding force of Euripides' play that we concluded that it was the Scottish play of the ancient world; in the end it was a harrowing and draining experience.

We considered two things to be of first importance: the play must be performed in masks, and the choral odes at least should be set to music. I had formerly been of the opinion that performance in masks might present difficulties for those not trained in this way, but had discovered by chance that any person whose face is even partially covered immediately compensates with an increase in bodily animation. Thus encouraged, and with an experienced company to work with, I proceeded without fear. Regular association with the resourceful Philip Korn has shown me that classical Greek drama is music drama, and it is impossible to do justice to it without music, so I re-enlisted him.

Linda Old, our maskmaker, had worked with me before, notably in the manufacture of a monumental pantomime horse for gratuitous gallop-ons during Thesmophoriazusae in 1993. She was keen to try her hand at masks, and we settled on half-face masks attached to headpieces for support. In the event, the manufacture required considerable expenditure of ingenuity and effort on both our parts, but the labour was fascinating and rewarding. In performance practice we found that the mask provided an extraordinary sense of anonymity, that the wearer was truly functioning as a conduit for Euripides' presentation of the old story. The members of the audience for their part reported that the masks had a haunting appearance that combined with the set to give an otherworldly impression.

I asked Philip Korn was asked to try something new: unaccompanied three- part music for female voices. Undeterred, he produced five choral hymns, each subdivided into two for the different sets of strophe and antistrophe. This was most successful; in consultation we had decided on the appropriate mood for each chorus, and in the context of the performance each ode added an emotional charge that was very effective. Again, members of the audience reported that the use of music in this way strongly affected their response to the drama as a whole.

The costuming was classical and simple. The principals' costumes were coloured, while the chorus wore white peploi whose design was based on representations in the vase painting and statuary of the period. To give the right impression of softness, a gauze overlay was worn over a simple full-length shift. In this way, the drape of the kolpos was achieved without bulk. The effect was pleasingly authentic and earned the approval of our resident art historian. Medea's costume disconcerted those of the audience who expected her to look 'Greek'; she was dressed in Phrygian tunic and trousers and painted her hands and feet to achieve a tattooed appearance, thus establishing the foreign, alien qualities that Euripides emphasises so much.

The set itself was simple and stark. I had asked for scenery which suggested the jaws of death, and Jane Pestell-Lytton was equal to the task. Two silver pipes with barbed wire coiled around them formed a large asymmetrical triangular entrance to the gunaikeion; this entrance was lined with crimson drapes and backed with gauze hangings, beautifully lit by Malcolm Crisp. The rest of the setting was black. At the end, the gauze was allowed to fall away with appropriate thunder and smoke to reveal Medea in her chariot, thus transporting the audience to the supernatural world to which she owed her powers.

Costumes, masks and set were highly stylised; Euripides' dialogue, however, is lively and natural, and this was relected in the translation, which made a distinction between the less self-conscious utterance of the Nurse and the Tutor and that of the other characters, but otherwise reserved high style for the choral odes. The actors relished their lines and delivered them passionately, and I noticed the effect that the wearing of masks had on their deportment. No coaching was necessary; the confines of the mask meant that the pricipal actors became more mobile when turning to look in any direction, and more stately in their movements about the stage. The chorus' task was rather different; I wanted them to simulate statuary, so movement was kept to a minimum except during the choral odes. When a principal, usually Medea, was alone on stage, the chorus functioned as interlocutor and responded more freely in movement and gesture; when principals were interacting the chorus was more restrained.

The production received many favourable comments but was not for the fainthearted. Those who came to it without prior knowledge were struck by its pace and emotional force; we felt that we had in some measure done Euripides justice.

All in all, it was with a sense of relief that I turned to Lysistrata and received the new group of actors from the care of the musical director.


presented by the Department of Classics and Ancient History Dolphin Theatre
The University of Western Australia
June 26th-29th, July 3rd-6th
Director - Judith Maitland
Music - Philip Korn
Lighting - Malcolm Crisp and Natasha Kepert
Set design - Judith Maitland
Translation - John Melville Jones

Encouraged by the experience of previous productions, Philip Korn and I decided to set as many as possible of the choral passages of Lysistrata to music. John Melville Jones' lyrics were rhythmic, ingenious, and delightful, and ideal for this purpose. The actors were rehearsed in the choruses and then delivered up to me to prepare the production.

As we have found before, the principle of wilful anachronism is appropriate to Athenian comedy, as some of its humour is timeless and some is particular to its time and context. Costume was thus essentially classical with anachronistic embellishments. The women began modestly garbed in white peploi, but added modern stockings, suspender belts and other decorations as their fancy took them. The men of course were required to add certain embellishments to their costume as their supposed predicament worsened. The director suggested that they costruct their own phalloi, again according to fancy, and some truly terrifying weapons resulted. One or two in particular were so graphic in construction that the director felt compelled to advise the owner only to expose them if the audience seemed receptive. Inevitably, of course, the item was produced, to shrieks of amazement from all.

The stage setting was expanded into the auditorium. The Dolphin theatre has balconies on each side of the auditorium; one of these, on the audience's left, was designated as the Acropolis and the women moved freely between this area and the stage, heckling the audience as their fancy dictated. Initially the stage was women's space and the balcony/Acropolis men's space; as the action progressed the spaces were reversed, until at the end the sexes were reunited on stage. The decor for the Acropolis consisted of three wise caryatids depicted as a variation on the three wise monkeys; there should be no need to explain what each covered with her hands. On stage there was a simple streetscape incorporating false perspective, and at the extreme stage left stood a startled Hermes, which Lysistrata proceeded to mutilate at an appropriate point of irritation in the drama.

The incorporation of song and dance ensured a lively production; my main task as director was to choreograph the movements in both the sung and spoken sections. Lysistrata as we have it seems to call for an enormous cast; by dint of some ingenuity and incorporating changes of accessories we managed comfortably with two protagonists and two choruses of six persons each, all of whom assumed various parts when necessary. In particular, the parts of the Athenian and Spartan ambassadors were doubled with other named characters in the chorus. Fourteen people in full cry were quite enough for the stage of the Dolphin, and kept up a good pace without confusing the audience.

This production played to packed and enthusiastic houses and received many favourable comments.

Judith Maitland
The Department of Classics and Ancient History
The University of Western Australia
E-mail: jmaitla@cyllene.uwa.edu.au

(Judith Maitland is preparing for her open air production of Sophocles' Ajax, in the New Fortune Theatre, the University of Western Australia, 9th-11th January 1997.)