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Performances in the 2000s

In the early 2000s the Greek play moved from the New Theatre, its home since 1972, to the Greenwood Theatre at the Guy’s Campus. The performance of Rhesus in 2005 is thought to be the first of its kind in Britain since 1928.


Greek Play performances of the 2000s (more information found below):

  • Birds  (Aristophanes) 2000  
  • Antigone  (Sophocles) 2001  
  • Bacchae  (Euripides) 2002  
  • Hippolytus  (Euripides) 2003  
  • Acharnians  (Aristophanes) 2004
  • Rhesus  (anon.) 2005  
  • Ecclesiazusae  (Aristophanes) 2006  
  • Trachiniae  (Sophocles) 2007  
  • Oedipus Tyrannus  (Sophocles) 2008  
  • Lysistrata  (Aristophanes) 2009 
2000 Greek Play programme cover2000 Greek Play poster2000: Aristophanes - Birds

After four consecutive tragedies, it was time for an Aristophanes comedy, and the Birds was chosen for the new millennium.

The simple black and white programme cover (left) belies the exuberant nature of the production, the chorus of which was described as ‘the highlight of the play, a feast of feathers and fun’ by a delighted year 11 student who saw it.

Last performed in 1982, the technical capabilities and resources of the Greek play had increased significantly in under twenty years and this is clear from comparing the productions.

2001 Greek Play programme cover2001: Sophocles - Antigone

In 2001 the Greek play moved from the New Theatre in the Strand campus, which had been its home since the 1972 production of Antigone, to the Greenwood Theatre in Guy’s Campus.

The first production to be housed there was also the Antigone, beautifully and movingly rendered, but showing an edgy, modern side with the illustrations of techno-punk cartoons in the programme. 

2002 Greek Play programme cover2002: Euripides - Bacchae

The Bacchae has developed a rather bad reputation at King’s, almost as an equivalent of 'the Scottish Play'...

In 1979, it was the Bacchae that was called off shortly before the run was due to begin, and in 1986 a production of the same play had to be cancelled after two performances.

Luckily when it was reattempted in 2002 the spell of bad luck was broken and the production was very well received. Very few risks were taken in the interpretation of the play and this caution obviously paid off, as the production was called ‘straightforward and strong’ by one reviewer.

2003 Greek Play programme cover2003: Euripides - Hippolytus

Appropriately the play chosen to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Greek play was Hippolytus, the first ever Classical Society production.

2003 Greek Play poster

There was no attempt to hark back to the simple and unadorned production that audiences would have seen fifty years ago, but rather the play embraced modern abstract interpretation that seeks to heighten the meaning of the dialogue.

After the final performance there was a reception for Classics Department alumni, staff and students to celebrate the Greek play, with a speech given by the student actor who had played Hippolytus in the 1953 production. Electronic subtitles featured in this production, paraphrasing and translating the text, whereas in the first production fifty years before most of the audience would have been reading along with the actors from a copy of the Greek. It was indeed an ‘extra-special production’ as one reviewer commented.

2004 Greek Play programme cover2004 Greek Play poster2004: Aristophanes - Acharnians

The Greek play’s reputation for innovation and originality was achieved once again in 2004 with a King’s favourite, the Acharnians. Although not involving any music, the idea of surtitles was carried on, much to the gratitude of the audience. The production was in modern dress with very contemporary influences, which is often successfully employed for Aristophanes’ productions.

2005 Greek Play poster2005: Rhesus - anon.

2005 saw the typical King’s determination to bring more risky and troublesome plays to the stage successfully, with a production of Rhesus.

An overlooked play by an author who remains anonymous, the King’s programme states that the last performance of the play in the original language to take place in Britain was in 1928.

This production made use of an introductory film, explaining the background and theme of the play from a passage from Book X of the Iliad. The production was set during a nameless guerrilla war in Latin America. 

2006 Greek Play programme cover2006 Greek Play poster2006: Aristophanes - Women Take Power (Ecclesiazusae)

After the last grim tragedy, a comedy was in order, but again the choice of play was unusual and showed an eagerness for challenge and originality.

The play of 2006 was Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, and the production took its influences from many sources: dada, surrealism and art deco, creating an appropriately eclectic setting for such a lively play and reflecting the play’s bridging position between Old and Middle Comedy.

The music was Greek words set to Gershwin tunes and the costumes and staging created an intentionally confused and surreal vision.

2007 Greek Play poster2007: Sophocles - Trachiniae2007 Greek Play programme cover

2007 saw a production of Trachiniae, which had only been performed once before at King’s in 1964.

No surtitles were employed, instead interspersing quotes and specially written English passages, which summarised the action and emotions of the characters. In true King’s style, music both in English and Greek was very important to the production.

Pushing the bounds of the technology employed in previous productions, film was used to great effect and the tension was expressed not only through the characters but also through the dramatic staging, both live and recorded. 

Trachiniae: Further details

The 2007 play, Sophocles' Trachiniae, was a multimedia production which aimed to be comprehensible to audiences with all levels of Greek ranging from none to advanced. Surtitles were omitted to put an emphasis on the performance itself, but the play began with a brief preface in English, outlining the events that were to take place. In addition, at a few significant points in the course of the play, passages from English literature were substituted for the Greek to show how the themes of the ancient tragedy still resonate with those of modern literature. The costumes were timeless, and the setting and staging of the play highlighted the intimacy, even domesticity, of much of the tragedy.

Each year, usually prior to the Thursday evening performance an eminent academic gives a talk related to the play being performed. The lecture is open to the public. The talk normally begins at 6.30 pm. In 2007, Professor Judith Mossman of Nottingham University gave a talk entitled "The Good Women of Trachis".

Sophocles’ Trachiniae is rarely performed and does not appear on syllabuses very often. This is a pity because it is a play with a lot of potential, with excellent opportunities for female actors. However, from a performance point of view that is also its big drawback: the main part of Deianeira, wronged wife of Herakles is enormous and the other parts are very small.

The 2007 King’s Greek Play team tackled the production with verve and inspiration. The set was a clean clinical white, with curtains hanging like columns in a temple, from which a portrait of the omni-absent Herakles made his mark and the chorus gracefully moved. Very good use was made of film to illustrate the yearning of Deianeira for her Herakles, bringing her words to life.

Recent King’s productions have used surtitles and I can’t have been the only audience member to panic when I saw that there were none this year. But the surtitles were successfully superseded by summaries in English by the actors. The programme notes also helpfully highlighted Greek words to look out for, though it might have been helpful to add English derivations, were appropriate, eg for the often recurring ‘gynaikes’.

The acting was as ever of a very high standard. Charlotte Murrie in particular showed flair and resilience, not least in learning the huge role, but also in her singing and sensitive acting. The chorus also, the eponymous women of Trachis, were very well rehearsed and sang and spoke their lines with beautiful accents. They also looked terrific in their cosmetic masks and blind folds.

This was a high drama performance: Nessos’ long festering blood glowed pink on the darkened stage as Deianeira daubed it over robes for Herakles. The theatre rang with echoes of crackling funeral fires as the play climaxed in a crescendo of murder and suicide.

The students of King’s College London are to be congratulated on yet another imaginative and dynamic production in the original Greek.

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

Sophocles' Trachiniae is concerned with the house of Herakles, husband of Deianeira, and father of Hyllus. Herakles is absent on one of his labours, as he has been so often in the past. Deianeira is concerned at his absence, as she has heard tell of a prophecy concerning her husband's fate, which stated that if he did not return within fifteen months, his life would come to its end. In her anxiety, she beseeches her son to find his father and return with news of his well-being. Before Hyllus returns, a messenger brings the welcome news that Herakles is indeed alive and well and headed home, much to the jubilation of his long-suffering wife.

Not long after the celebrations are begun, however, Herakles' attendant Lichas returns with a number of female slaves. He lies about their origins, claiming they are the spoils of war from the sacked city of Oichalia, including a beautiful, well-born young woman, Iole, to whom Deianeira immediately finds herself drawn. However, the messenger informs Deianeira that Iole is, in fact, a princess and the sole reason Herakles sacked Oichalia - he intends to have her for his wife.

At this news, she becomes increasingly distraught. While she tries to be resigned to the situation, Deianeira vows to have her husband returned to her by virtue of a love potion, given to her by the Centaur Nessus, years earlier as he lay dying from the fatal shot administered to him by Herakles, the punishment for touching Deianeira with lustful hands. She smears this potion on a ceremonial robe, which she sends to her husband as he makes a sacrifice at a temple outside the town. Little does Deianeira know that the potion is actually a poison, which the twisted Centaur hoped she would one day use to unwittingly kill Herakles - this wish is fulfilled; Hyllus returns, blinded by anger, declaring his mother a murderer and announcing that Herakles is approaching, in the throws of death. Upon understanding her tragic error, Deianeira takes her own life.

Herakles finally reaches his home town, denouncing his former wife. He orders the protesting Hyllus to be married to Iole, and to burn his body on a funeral pyre. Thus the life of the great hero is ended, though the play ends without depicting his death.

2008 Greek Play poster2008: Sophocles - Oedipus Tyrannus

2008's production was Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, a story that needs no introduction. It was told starkly, with little in the way of set design, and a heavy emphasis on oracular predictions and the wrath of the Gods punishing the innocent for ancient crimes. It reflected the power struggle between Man and God, which is so prevalent in modern times.

Surtitles were used to enable those without Greek to follow the action on the stage.

2009 Greek Play programme cover2009: Aristophanes - Lysistrata

From the moment the first bars of Girls just wanna have fun filled the Greenwood and even more so once Lysistrata appeared on stage as a hybrid between Barbie and Working Girl everybody understood: this was going to be a very different take on ancient Greek comedy.

2009 Greek Play cast list

Through very hard work and determination, fresh, colourful ideas and a lot of hot pink, the vision of Christina Romanowski took off.

The audience was delighted: not only at the contagious fun radiating from all the actors, but also at reading the insightful translation on the surtitles. Inflatable trouser-expanders? Neon leg warmers? A pink suit? Expertly used Star Wars merchandising? This production had it all – including the world’s first bubble gum pop hit in ancient Greek. When the cast joined hands in the last scene, reconciled and relieved, a sea of big smiles illuminated the audience’s faces. Euoi, euoi, euai, euai!

Guest lecture: Dr Nick Lowe of Royal Holloway University of London, gave a talk prior the evening performance on 11/2/09.  The title of his talk was "Desperate Housewives: Season Zero". His talk looked at the way in which Lysistrata had been the first Greek play to include 'ordinary' women as part of the onstage cast.