It is that time of (three) year again. Time for the Cambridge Greek Play, a performance in ancient Greek with English surtitles which I (should say we as I have an interested and supportive wife) have had the pleasure of attending for the last twelve years. This year the performances are The Persians and Euripides’ Satyr play Cyclops. A big thank you to my Open University A219 module, Exploring the Classical World, tutor who recommended it in a tutorial. Along with Prof Michael Scott’s documentary ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ fired my love for drama, initally tragedy but then, thanks to the excellent courses run by Gina May, comedy. It is the lens I tend to use to look back to ancient Greece, all the topics and tensions whether it be political, military, philosophichal, ethical or social are addressed in the context of a grand civic event where the whole city (well probably only men) participated and discussed. The power, context and setting for these plays is succinctly and eloquently articulated by Professor Simon Goldhill in a section of the foreword from this year’s brochure.
It is with a little trepidation each time we go as to whether it will be as good as last time and yet they always pull it off in spades. This performance, to me, was a outstanding. It never ceases to amaze me that the majority of the performers are not from a Classics background but have to learn the words, the lines and master the pronunciation. Although it feels a little churlish to single out a performance, this must go to Maria Telkinoff who played Atossa, the sheer number of lines, the strength of performance and dramatic movement was awe inspiring. The staging was cleverly simple being a number of oversized steps leading to the entrance of the palace. There were podia each side where the chorus stood separated but unified.
A particular triumph was the raising of Darius from the underworld, rising as he did through a trapdoor, with dry ice effect at the top of the steps. The arrangement of the podia and steps allowed the chorus to lie, prostate with their arms extended like a supplicant frame emphasising the figure of Darius.
The vocal effects of Darius with a booming, distorted quality gave an etheral feeling. Simply excellent. This isn’t taking anything away from the performances of the other characters and the chorus sang, spoke with different rhythms to emphasise the narrative context with unified and dramatic gestures. The staging once again came into its own with the entrance of a distraught, emotional and unconsolable Xerxes. The chorus appeared to tower over him in judgement, focusing the blame squarely on his shoulders for his decisions. The final scene where Xerxes climbed the steps to enter the palace, because of their size, was painfully slow. The chorus had the backs half turned and faces fully turned away as he climbed bewildered and in silence adding to his shame and isolation.
Momentarily away from the play, I was intrigued by the audience reception. For me, my expectations were fulfilled. I knew the play having read and studied it. I was aware of various analysis which was a joy to pick out during the play. Even with my limited knowledge of ancient Greek I was able to pick out the odd word here and there and could tell when the surtitles moved away from the play for the audience such as instead of βαρβαροσ, barbarian, the word Persian was substituted. A few seats away, in the same row was Caroline MacKenzie who runs excellent online courses with some of her students who also enjoyed the play immensely. However I was aware that the row behind had a very different experience. Chatty as I am, before the performance I found out they were on a school trip, were not classics orientated and, as far as I am aware, were not given any information or context about what they were going to see. Although we did not chat after the performances we got the impression they did not engage or understand in any meaningful way. I am not judging or coming from an elitist position on this but more of the danger of assumptions about audiences when it comes to applying audience theory.
It made me think of the reception the play must have received in 472BCE. Whilst they would not have known the play as such they would almost universally have lived the action. They would have known the names, the places, participated in the battles and, of course, the outcome. I am confident they would have revelled in the desolation of the Persians and delighted in the differences which, to the Athenians, ensured their victory. Probably this would have been a totally uniting moment, a moment that contributed to their identity and a belief in their invincibility. It would be a memory that would last. It can possibly be equated to the post second world war sense of victory mixed with self-sacrifice and bravery that we, of a certain age, remember through films which were released in the 50s and 60s which are too numerous to mention in full but include: The Dambusters, Reach for the Sky, The Cruel Sea, Ice Cold in Alex, Bridge over the River Kwai etc. all of which have a lingering memory. Whilst we have had the luxury of a predominantly peaceful time allowing the memory to endure, the pain, disbelief and bewilderment is palpable in tragedy and comedy only forty years later with dual problems of the Peloponnesian War and disastrous Sicilian expedition.
Now, returning to the performances. I have not read or seen Cyclops and was anxious to see how a tragedian treated comedy so this was a new experience. As Professor Goldhill states in the foreword it is a rare performance, he cannot think of another. A quick search of the APGRD performance database shows that it has only been performed four times in the 21st century with the last time in the UK as an adaptation in 2006 – so yes, it is rare. Although I said comedy it was not the same as an Aristophanic comedy, there was not the biting satire of poking fun at politician, groups or generals but I suspect that is the point. It is intended as a ridiculous, farcial release at the end of three tragedies. As you would suspect It follows much of the Homeric narrative, Odysseus’ landing on the island, the encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus, Polyphemus eating the crew, the ‘nobody’ trick, the blinding of Polyphemus and the final revelation of Odysseus’ name. Add in Odysseus dressed as a comic book hero, a group of Satyrs sporting erections and desperate for wine, a band of muscians that double as sheep and a huge puppet Polyphemus you get the idea this is not going to be serious. There are songs, innuendo, double entendre and a good helping of audience participation with a couple of ‘he’s behind you’ and singalong and clapping at the end.
Odysseus was suitably devious but flambouyant, the satyrs vascilated between bravery and cowardice, helpfulness and uselessness, were noisy and uncontrolable. Polyphemus was expertly operated and manipulated by two actors: one with the head and operated the mouth the other, close behind two huge hands (which got separated to much laughter when Polyphemus got drunk). I can only imagine how the Athenian audience would have been looking forward to this, possibly halfway theough the third tragedy – it would indeed have been a release of emotions.
One final short point about The Persians. Does Greek tragedy have a relevance today? I have seen many tragedies performed as they were written, adaptations and re-imaginings and yes, there is always a parallel with questions and dilemmas in todays world and there is a particular and serious resonance to a play portraying a hubristic leader who decides to attack an neighbouring country with what should be overwhelming numbers who has poor decision making and vastly underestimates the motivation of the defenders.
Before I finish I would like to say a big thank you to Zoe Birkbeck who has given permission to use her beautiful photographs https://www.zoebirkbeckphotography.com/
Finally, is there anything I find disappointing? Well, yes. The plays are not recorded so I cannot revisit, they are only performed over three days, they do not tour the country and worst of all, there is now another three year wait for the next performance. As the Persians would say – oi oi oi oi.
I would love to hear any comments, as always, especially from people who attended the performances whether they agree with my comments or not – and did I miss anything?
Unfortunately I didn’t attend the performances. However I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the comprehensive and inspiring account of your thoughts and reactions so thank you.
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Good news. I posted the blog on Twitter and received a reply from Daniel Goldman who is the director:
Hello! I directed the shows and really appreciative of this article you’ve written. Thank you for engaging with it so deeply. However my main reason for writing is to let you know that we HAVE recorded the plays on film and they will be publicly accessible… Release date TBC!
Fantastic blog, Colin! Thank you for such a considered write-up of the amazing Cambridge Greek Play(s). It was an added bonus to find our Classics Club contingent sitting just a couple of seats away from you and your wife! I think Fate must have played a part there…
I don’t have much to add to your detailed and lovely review so here is simply the summary I posted on Twitter: ‘A fabulous double bill full of laments & laughter. Outstanding performances from all; great translation; stunning costumes/make-up/props; terrific music; excellent pre-show talk (Profs Rebecca Laemmle & Paul Cartledge).’
Delighted to hear that the Director, Daniel Goldman, has confirmed the plays have been recorded – otherwise, a lack of recording would have been my lament, too! I left the theatre wanting to go back in and watch the plays all over again. As for the three year wait until the next Cambridge Greek Play – ‘oimoi’ indeed!
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Thank you so much for the lovely comment – made my day