Edinburgh Festival: Homer's where the art is

After 3,000, years the stories of the Trojan War are still gripping actors and audiences.

The publicity machine at Edinburgh is like a monster. From the second you arrive, it attacks you with flurries of leaflets, besieges you with actors striking strange costumed poses outside Marks & Spencer's, and stupefies you with strings of quotes from newspapers which - no matter how damning in the first place - have been edited into rave reviews. It breathes flames of talent discovery at you before breakfast, insinuates its way into your life through the digits of your mobile phone and, when all else fails, tries to seduce you with alcohol and the odd nibble on a cocktail-stick. It picks up on the wishes of each actor and screams: "We want to be noticed, for what is the use of being here at all if no one remembers us?"

A seemingly easy way to drive the publicity monster into submission would be to ask how many of its plays might be remembered in 3,000 years' time. The question is not as unfair as it sounds, for if you scan the Fringe programme - which promises everything from Pussy Galore's Flying Circus to Supper with Robert Burns - you see that one prominent source of material has already passed that test. Homer, inspiration to Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus (who described his work as "slices from Homer's banquet"), Tennyson, Joyce and - according to a recent Times feature - Star Wars: The Phantom Menace - is still setting theatre companies on fire in pre-millennial Edinburgh.

Whether it is Linda Marlowe burning with Clytemnestra's rage in Berkoff's Women, Kate Dickie smouldering with hate in Electra, or Odysseus storming round in combat trousers in The Cure at Troy, there is plenty of evidence that Homer's stories continue to stir up passion in modern audiences.

Turn back to the Iliad, start reading, and it is easy to see why this is the case. Suddenly, the siege at Troy stops being some distant, irrelevant war, and flourishes into a series of human-interest stories, with ambitions and emotions that make the blood flow freely again. Homer has the kind of interest in situation and character development that would power entire soap operas: Zeus bickering with his petulant wife Hera; Andromache begging her husband Hector not to go back to battle and certain death; or Agamemnon getting uptight about losing his bit of fluff, Chryseis. The Iliad brings such stories to enduring life with a gift for echo and metaphor that transforms crowds into roaring seas, makes young soldiers rage like lions attacking flocks of sheep, and poignantly allows a young baby's fear to prophesy the violent death of his father. It is no surprise that, three millennia later, people are still returning to Homer's vivid characters and asking: "What would they do if I put them in this scenario?'

So why do the words "ancient Greek' still strike a death knell in most conversations? "The problem with most people's perception of the classics is this `holier than thou' attitude," complains Riggs O'Hara, who has brought an adaptation of Euripides' Trojan Women to Edinburgh which opens with a rap chorus, and transplants the Greek tragedy to a global war scenario in 2099. "There is this cloud of formality which hangs over ancient Greek writing and stops people from seeing it as it really is."

These sentiments highlight a seemingly unchangeable situation. If you were to ask a cross-section of people to try and visualise an ancient Greek author, the odds are fairly high that they would imagine a statue before they got to grips with a living, breathing individual. Add to this the fact that the Greek author's thoughts are conveyed in a series of alien squiggles - normally only deciphered in public schools - and the death-knell of elitism mixed with obscurity rings out. But somehow the process of putting a play together appears to bypass such obstacles, for how else can you explain the paradox of all this raw young theatre talent desperate to engage with figures most of the population has relegated to the past?

"If you're putting on a Greek tragedy, it's really important that you know why you're doing it," says Helen Eastman, director of the Oxford University Touring Company's The Cure at Troy. "You mustn't just engage with it as an antiquarian text." Her statement begins to give some clues for solving the paradox, since it illustrates the depth of engagement that successful actors and directors must sustain with the writing. It is significant that Eastman and all the other directors I interviewed talked about the moment in rehearsals when the play came to life - since it points up the differences between looking at a text with the intention of bringing it physically alive and reading it for mental stimulation. The desire for publicity suddenly becomes a positive interpretative force; for once you start asking "Why would people be interested in Medea killing her children?" or "What political context is going to make people care about Philoctetes' wound?", you start to come up with some passionate answers about why these ancient authors still speak to us.

Courttia Newland, the acclaimed young black writer who has rewritten Women of Troy, points out that most Greek dramas also have a versatility which means they can "carry society's baggage, and become open to several new interpretations". This year's Edinburgh certainly illustrates Troy's multi-dimensional potential, with Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy reflecting the problems in Northern Ireland, the stunning House of Pootsie Plunket transporting Electra to a magical ice-palace, and Theatre Cryptic's Electra viewing its heroine in a multi-media world which veers between emotional bleakness and comic grotesquerie. It is telling that the less traditional the productions are, the more successful they are in conveying the plays' emotional potential. As O'Hara points out, you shouldn't be frightened off by Greek drama's image, "you should simply get to grips with the life and blood".

`Women of Troy', Pleasance (0131-556 6550) 6.50pm; `The Cure at Troy', C (0131-225 5105), 7.15pm; `House of Pootsie Plunkett', Continental Shifts (0131-346 1405) 8pm; `Electra', Theatre Workshop (0131-226 5425), in rep; `Berkoff's Women', Assembly Rooms (0131-226 2428), 1.15pm

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit