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 and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, wrote a blog post attacking the app and questioning its apparent 'strong Christian bias'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Leading light: Sharma in London

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
News
Brooke Magnanti believes her reputation has been damaged by the claim
books
Arts and Entertainment
A large fire has broken out in London's historic Battersea Arts Centre
art
Arts and Entertainment
Orla Brady as Anne Meredith, MyAnna Buring as Elizabeth Quinn and Joanna Vanderham as Katherine McVitie in Banished
tvReview: Despite the gritty setting, this drama is as fluffy and soppy as a soap opera
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and co-director Richard Glatzer, standing, on the set during the filming of ‘Still Alice’ in New York
film
Arts and Entertainment
Great British Sewing Bee finalist Matt Chapple
tvReview: He wowed the judges with an avant garde dress
Arts and Entertainment
Driven to the edge: 'Top Gear' producer Oisin Tymon is said to have had a row with Clarkson
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nazi officer Matthias Schoenaerts embarks on an affair with married French woman Michelle Williams in 'Suite Francaise'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Prime movers: Caitriona Balfe (centre) and the cast of Outlander
TV
News
Feasting with panthers: Keynes
books
Arts and Entertainment
Strung out: Mumford & Sons
music
Arts and Entertainment
Avant-garde: Bjork
music
Arts and Entertainment
Despite a decade of reform, prosecutions and convictions of rape has remained consistently low
arts + entsAcademic and author Joanna Bourke in warning to arts world
Arts and Entertainment
Electro Velvet, made up of Alex Larke and Bianca Nicholas, will represent the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015
music
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
    Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

    Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

    A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
    Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

    Election 2015

    Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May
    Countdown to the election: Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear as the SNP target his Commons seat

    Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear

    The Chief Secretary to the Treasury didn’t forget his Highland roots in the Budget. But the SNP is after his Commons seat
    The US economy is under threat because of its neglected infrastructure

    The US is getting frayed at the edges

    Public spending on infrastructure is only half of Europe’s, and some say the nation’s very prosperity is threatened, says Rupert Cornwell
    Mad Men final episodes: Museum exhibition just part of the hoopla greeting end of 1960s-set TV hit

    New Yorkers raise a glass to Mad Men

    A museum exhibition is just part of the hoopla greeting the final run of the 1960s-set TV hit
    Land speed record: British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    Bloodhound SSC will attempt to set a new standard in South Africa's Kalahari desert
    Housebuilders go back to basics by using traditional methods and materials

    Housebuilders go back to basics - throwing mud at the wall until it sticks

    Traditional materials are ticking all the construction boxes: they are cheap, green – and anyone can use them
    Daniel Brühl: 'When you have success abroad, you become a traitor. Envy is very German'

    Daniel Brühl: 'Envy is very German'

    He's got stick for his golden acting career and for his beloved restaurant - but Daniel Brühl is staying put in Berlin (where at least the grannies love him)
    How Leica transformed photography for ever: Celebrating 100 years of the famous camera

    Celebrating 100 years of Leica

    A new book reveals how this elegant, lightweight box of tricks would transform the way we saw life on the street and in fashion, on the battlefield and across the world