The Cambridge Greek Play, Studying Tragedy as an academic subject and an announcement about my Next Project!!

By the time this goes up, I will have seen the Cambridge Greek Play (a triennial performance of Greek plays in Ancient Greek at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge) over a month ago, though as I write this, it was only a few hours. (My musings on studying Tragedy I may add to throughout the term, as I continue to study it, but the thoughts on the Greek Play are all almost immediate.) I wasn’t planning on going to see this double bill of Antigone and Lysistrata; it was sold out before I got around to thinking about it, and I wasn’t totally sold on the idea of surtitled Greek. Then I had a meeting about my dissertation (on contemporary [20th/21st century] performance of Shakespeare, more on that some other time) in which the play came up, and my supervisor had a spare ticket. So I went along, and I’m so glad I did! I had a wonderful evening – it was a hilarious, feminist, and illuminating performance and I’m delighted to have got so much out of it.

The first half was Sophocles’ Antigone, in Greek with English surtitles, in a relatively straight (in the sense of ‘not-revolutionary’) interpretation, in modern dress, but otherwise fairly straightforward. Now, my first interaction with the story of Antigone was aged about 14, reading Anouilh’s play, which made me entirely sympathetic to Creon, and irritated by Antigone. I then studied the play in AS (penultimate year of school education, for my non-UK readers) Drama and Theatre Studies, where in my exam I would be expected to write an essay giving directorial ideas about how to do [whatever was in the question] in a performance of the play. I’ve seen it performed since, and had written my first essay for the Tragedy Paper (one fifth of my degree) on it (and Oedipus the King). It’s a play I know very well. That said, I had never seen it performed in Greek, perhaps unsurprisingly, as that doesn’t happen all that often, and I have no Greek at all, so neither had I read it in the original. Hearing the text was an illuminating experience, because as much as you can know that something was poetry, and that it had its own metre and rhythm and rhyme, hearing that is rather different. Experiencing the transitions between spoken and sung text (perhaps not as they would originally have happened, but still feeling the differences possible) was also illuminating of different emotions that music could draw out of the text. The production of Antigone  was effective and exciting in the new light it shone on my appreciation of how the play works and sounds.

The second half was Lysistrata, which I had never heard of, and knew exactly nothing about (not even how to pronounce the title [Lesistrata, apparently]). The plot is essentially that the women of two warring countries refuse their partners sex until they stop the war between them. It is a very bawdy text, and it was a hilarious production, which had me in fits of giggles, and booing some contemporary politicians who made appearances. It was entirely recontextualised into modern politics and the parody performances of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage were spot on satires. (With the possible exception of the 7 strong striptease dance all wearing Farage masks. That was possibly scarring. Hopefully I will have recovered by the time this is published.) There aren’t many times/places where you can say that a performance of an Ancient Greek play, in surtitled Greek is the funniest play you’ve seen in months, but I say it now. This was a fantastic piece of theatre: amusing, thought-provoking, politically sharp…

Which brings me to the interesting experience of studying theatrical texts (or even in the case of some of my other academic work, theatrical performances) in an academic context. Obviously, this is not the first time I have done this – I had an entire term focused exclusively on Shakespeare in my first year, and have studied plays from a wide variety of periods in my first two years at Cambridge. But the Tragedy Paper is an experience which feels slightly different, because the plays are all focused on the big questions, as it were, which in today’s political context is strikingly poignant. (I’m not convinced that contemporary politics aren’t more of a farce than a tragedy, but that perhaps depends on how they end.)

The focus on ‘Tragedy’ (where every lecture and seminar begins with the fact that we can’t actually define what tragedy even is) is probably the most interesting element, because it means you focus on both a huge scope (seriously, for a paper which is meant to be about depth, two and a half millenia of literature is quite a breadth of stuff to study!) and on a series of fairly narrow, and occasionally seemingly contradictory, definitions. The two compulsory elements (Greek Tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy) are less massive, but ‘all the rest of tragedy’ is quite a lot, and it covers a lot of big human questions (about family, fate, what is or isn’t good or evil…) both in similar and in different ways to earlier and later works, as tragedies evolve in their contexts.

I’m enjoying it, and studying theatre texts (which I am doing entirely: I could chose to study tragedy in other art forms, but I’m most interested in Theatre anyway, so it seemed like a good place to stay) from an academic perspective is always interesting: I’m usually thinking about how a production or performance might work, and my focus being drawn to the effect of individual words or phrases and the themes in the play which I might not have tbiught about inform my ability to criticise performances effectively, which is actually quite a different skill, as I’m learning through writing my dissertation about contemporary Shakespearean performance. 

Is hearing more about my academic work something you would be interested in? I would probably stay on theatre-related academic work (which this year, as I’m able to choose what I’m doing more, is most of it!) but it’s a big part of what I’m up to this year, so you might find it interesting… Let me know in the comments either way!

In other news! 

I’m excited to be able to announce my next project – Cigarettes and Chocolate, by Anthony Mingella, at the ADC theatre on the 1st and 2nd of February next year! I’ll be updating you on that more soon, but I’m so excited about this project – it’s a great show, and I’m really looking forwards to working on it!

That’s all for this week, thank you as always for reading! This was a slightly different post, trying out a couple of different things I’m considering doing more of in future – reviewing/review-like writing about shows I’ve seen, and some discussion of my current academic work, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments! Did you enjoy it? Would you like to see more of either or both of these things? Or would you prefer me to stick to clear advice and updates about my projects? 

Emily xxx


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