Edinburgh Festival: Homer's where the art is
After 3,000, years the stories of the Trojan War are still gripping actors and audiences.
Wednesday 25 August 1999
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
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