The first Greek tragedy I ever saw in the original language was Sophocles' Trachiniae (Women of Trachis), in Cambridge in 1983. I still remember it vividly. Now the relatively rarely-staged (compared to the Oedipus Rex and Antigone) Trachiniae becomes the first play I've seen two Greek-language productions of (without, incidentally, seeing an English version in the interim).
I've noticed over the years that the King's Greek Play has a tendency to be theatrically experimental. Even when the staging is fairly conventional, they'll choose a left-field text like Rhesus. 2007 is no different, and director Caroline Fries scatters throughout the play what I can only describe as artifices, seeking to engage the Greekless audience. Perhaps that's appropriate, as Trachiniae sees Sophocles himself experimenting, with a female character, Deianeira, Heracles' wife, who is, as Judith Mossman noted in her pre-performance talk, not bad in herself, but through naivety and a lack of common sense manages to kill her husband, a central conflict between two characters (Heracles and Deianeira) who never meet, and a Messenger whose initial action is to report an offstage messenger's speech.
The question is, do any of the artifices work?
Before tackling that, I have to be fair and point out that playing a role in a Greek-language production is difficult, especially if one is not a native speaker of the modern language (and there are noticeably fewer people in prominent roles with that sort of background than there have been in previous years). Not only does one have to remember lines in a tongue not one's own, but one has to appear as if one knows what the lines mean. I have seen Greek language productions where actors were speaking words when they clearly had no idea of the meaning, and had just learned the text by rote. No-one in this year's King's Greek Play committed that sin. And these are amateur actors and an amateur production. So I cannot set too harsh a standard upon such a show (which is not to say that student productions cannot sometimes reach very high standards indeed).
So, what are some of the artifices? The production makes a point of eschewing surtitles. I think this is a shame, as I was glad to see them appear in 2005. Instead, there are short readings in English. These are usually given at microphones by the sides of the stage, though the dying Heracles remains on his cot. They are translations of lines of the play, summaries of the action, or texts that resonate with the same themes (I recognized Shakespeare and the King James Bible). There are also short filmed sequences projected on to the backdrop (as there had been in a previous KCL version of the Antigone that I saw, and didn't much like). I'm not sure that this helps the audience follow the play's action - I found myself wondering how someone unfamiliar with the work would cope. The film sequences also occasion the odd pause as the cast wait for them to start, which cause the action to drag. (As does the bringing on of Heracles, where the lights are dimmed as his cot is pulled on by stagehands, who then left before the action resumed - far better, surely, to begin the scene as Heracles is brought on.) All this can only be accommodated through what seemed to be the slashing of significant sections of the Greek - this at least is what I surmised from the way those around me following the work with their Oxford Classical Texts flipped their pages over.
The Chorus are clad in Greek-style dresses, and masked, after a fashion - their faces are painted white, with a black domino mask painted across that. The intent here may be to present the Chorus as uniform, but in fact the make up actually highlights the differences in their faces. But there is some attempt at music (though little movement), with the Chorus singing two songs, and a duet with Deianeira.
Deianeira is portrayed confidently by Charlotte Murrie, and it soon becomes clear that her halting delivery is intended to show Deianeira's state of mind, and not because she has forgotten her lines. (Unfortunately, the play began with an English prologue by an actress who had forgotten her lines.) She is clad in a forties cocktail dress, with a large flower in her hair, an echo, as the programme notes reveal, of Billie Holiday's look. Heracles' new bride, Iole, is clad identically, underlining the way in which she is intended as a replacement for Deianeira. It also adds incestuous overtones to Heracles demand that Iole be married after his death to his son Hyllus - like Oedipus, Hyllus is to plough the furrow previously ploughed by his father.
I can't say that there were any particularly bad ideas used in this production. But the artifices seemed to me not to add up to more than the sum of their parts. There was no unifying theme bringing the various devices together - for all that last year's production seems to have somewhat divided people I've spoken to, there was at least a single central idea from which the other ideas flowed. I couldn't see that in this production.
So this version of Trachiniae seems to me to be a failed experiment. But it is a failure produced by people who have talent. To progress one must experiment, and if that exposes one to the risk of failure, that does not invalidate the experiment, for that is how one learns.
This review was first posted on Dr. Keen's blog