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A new project from By Jove Theatre Company

Written by Christine Plastow |

Dr. Christine Plastow (Open University), an associate director of By Jove Theatre Company, shares news of a project which the company is currently developing.

At By Jove, we make politically conscious performance work that tells old stories in new ways – we’re interested in the Western canon, having worked with Shakespeare and Jane Austen as source materials, but a lot of our work is also rooted in Greek myth.

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With the support of the Institute of Classical Studies’ Public Engagement Grant, we’re currently developing an entirely new show that takes a look at queer identities, community building, and the politics of storytelling – all via the Greek mythological story of Orestes and Pylades. We’re very excited to be returning to Orestes’ slightly complicated family after Electra-Orestes (2011) and The Women Screaming Beyond (2012), our first shows as a company. The project’s development is also being supported by an Arts Council National Lottery Project Grant. We’re grateful to both of our funders for giving us the opportunity to work with this exciting source material in a brand new way!

We’re still not sure exactly what form the final production will take, but we’ve begun to play about with ideas in the rehearsal room at two in-depth research and development sessions. We’ve started from the premise that Orestes and Pylades, two characters in the cycle of myths of the house of Atreus, have been interpreted as queer at various points in history, but this theme rarely emerges explicitly in any of their appearances in Greek tragedy or in modern productions of those plays. Orestes is the son of Agamemnon, destined to avenge his father’s death at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra, and to be pursued in turn by the Furies, seeking justice for the killing of his mother. Throughout his myth, Orestes is accompanied by Pylades, with whom he was raised after being sent from Argos for his own safety after the death of Agamemnon. The two men are clearly close: they travel together, plot vengeance against Clytemnestra, and Pylades cares dotingly for Orestes in his Fury-induced sickness. Yet they don’t often appear alongside figures such as Achilles and Patroclus in the canon of same-sex relationships in Greek mythology.

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A number of questions have started emerging for us: What does it mean to seek queer characters in Greek mythology, or in the canon more broadly? How does a historical presence legitimise a community? How does the telling and retelling of stories solidify or change a narrative? How are the women in Orestes’ story affected or overlooked? What would it mean to retell Orestes’ story in a new way – not simply as another version of the Oresteia? Orestes’ story has multiple different versions, so we’re interested to see how we can incorporate variations in the narrative, as well as to step outside the traditional approach to his story to find something new. We’re also thinking about the relationship between Classics and the LGBT+ community more broadly, working with the idea of ‘Greek love’ and Classics as a language and a space to explore same-sex desire. In our latest research and development session, we began to think about the form of our production, which is likely to involve our characteristic lyrical text, innovative use of movement and performance space, and taste for approaching the source material in a rather irreverent manner.

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We’re happy to be collaborating with a number of people on the project. Our major collaborator is Professor Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (Hamilton College, NY), who is particularly interested in ancient sexuality and has been carrying out research on Orestes as a queer figure. We’re also working on the research and development process with playwright and classicist Sue Blundell, who has published on Greek art and the lives of ancient Greek women, and who has written plays such as Tell Me the Truth About Love celebrating the relationship between composer Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears (FitzFest; Clapham Omnibus Theatre) and The Happiness Index using ancient philosophy to explore happiness and modern politics (New End Theatre). Finally, we’re working once again with musician Vivienne Youel, with whom we collaborated previously on Before They Told You What You Are (2014) and Here She Comes (2017), and who has recently been working with Emma Rice’s new company Wise Children and is a member of the band YOUEL.

The research and development process has been really stimulating so far, and we’ve already begun to experiment with creative responses to the source material. We’re working collaboratively on the project, as is the case with every By Jove production, with all of our members – writers, movement practitioners, actors, dramaturgs and academics – bringing something to the table. We all have different responses to the material in terms of what speaks to us, which produces really fascinating results in the rehearsal room.

As the project begins to take shape, we’ll be keeping people updated on Twitter and our blog. Then, in spring 2019, we’ll present a work-in-progress performance, with a full production further down the line. You can follow us on Twitter @ByJoveTheatre or visit our website www.byjovetheatre.org to keep up to date with developments.

Thanks once again to the ICS for supporting By Jove in the development of our exciting new project!

All accompanying photographs, showing the company at work during the second research and development session, were taken by Alexandra Tilling.