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Clytemnestra - the Oxford Greek Play

Books + Ideas, , — November 2011

On Friday Camilla and I went to see the "Oxford Greek Play" Clytemnestra (actually Aeschylus' The Libation-bearers, or Choephoroi).

This was the first of Aeschylus' plays I've seen staged, and watching it brought home the difficulty in making his quite static drama accessible to a modern audience.

There was a bit of a Japanese element to the scenery and costumes (an odd element here came near the end, when Orestes waved around a
fragment of Agamemnon's white robe with a red spot right in the middle of it). And some time is devoted to "extra" choreography -- the strangest to me was Electra doing a Lady Macbeth and washing her hands furiously in the background in the final scene.

The effect was quite operatic, and I think worked better in Greek (with surtitles) than it might have in English, with the gravitas of the foreign language with its unfamiliar prosody helping replace the religious power the original must have had (for some if not most of Aeschylus' audience).

The acting was also better than I had expected, perhaps because it drew on a broader pool than just classicists -- the program explained that three of the five chorus members didn't know any Greek. Overall, it was an unexpectedly powerful performance.

The day before I'd gone along to a symposium put on to accompany the play, which consisted of three consecutive seminars. Scott Scullion talked about the original staging of Choephoroi, in particular whether the "palace" or skēnē was present throughout, the way the audience is given more negative information about Clytemnestra than Orestes, through the Nurse's speech and Clytemnestra's attempt to obtain an axe, and whether the Furies were present or just imagined at the end.

Fiona Macintosh talked about the reception of Choephoroi, some of the modern Oresteias (the Oresteia being the trilogy consisting of Agamemnon, Choephoroi and Eumenides), but mostly about the early modern prominence of an "Agamemnon" that consisted of about a third of that play and almost all of Choephoroi. Which was apparently one of the inspirations for Shakespeare's Hamlet.

And Clare Foster talked about the history of the Oxford Greek Play going back to 1880. This involved burlesques, drapery and cross-dressing, bans on theatre, and strange combinations of early feminism with elite status markers. There have been 500 odd modern performances of classical Greek plays in the original language, of which more than half have been in the UK.

That was a good mix of material. They also provided a good sandwich lunch and I got to see the Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies (the Classics faculty building), which one enters from an unassuming doorway off St Giles but which is an impressive construction that "fills in" all the space behind the streetfront. I don't know that I want to take up Ancient Greek, Latin and classical history again, but it's good to keep up some contact with that world.


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