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‘Dog-Tomb’, a site-specific performance written and directed by Zoe Harris-Wallis

By Zoe Harris-Wallis

On the 8th and 9th of July, myself and my team (made up on UCL students from all different subjects as well as UAL students and freelance artists) put on an experimental performance based on Greek tragedy at the Crypt Gallery in St Pancras Church, Euston. The piece was called ‘Dog-Tomb’ and was a site-specific performance that combined elements of performance art, spoken word and theatre to offer a re-telling of the story of the mythical Trojan queen, Hecuba.

Entrance way

The project was born from my desire to explore the connections between academic research and creative practice and fostering relationships with creative practitioners and being involved in their projects can aid researchers. In this case, however, I took on the roles of both academic and creative as I wrote the script, directed the performance and helped with the costume and set design. Throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I have often combined my classical studies with creative pursuits more broadly but it was really rewarding to be able to realise a project brought together these two disciplines in such a focused way.

Over the course of my MA in The Reception of the Classical World at UCL, I have been exploring the role of materiality and the imagination in modern engagement with antiquity. I found this to be particularly prevalent in the work of female and queer artists and artists an exploration of the body is often central. The Hecuba myth felt like an excellent story to work. Themes connected to materiality leapt out from the ancient sources that record this myth. In particular, I looked at Euripides’ The Trojan Women, Hecuba and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. All of them deal extensively with the theme of motherhood while the latter also raise the questions about we configure the relationship between the human and non-human (represented by Hecuba’s transformation into a dog after she has undertaken a violent revenge), burial and memorial (represented by her burying of Astyanax, Polyxena becoming a grave-offering and Hecuba’s own lack of a burial when she dies as animal). I therefore decided to create a new text that focused on these themes and which took the form of a long poem which blended the dramatic monologues of ancient tragedy and the narrative qualities of epic poetry.

Set

The role of material objects and the body is also central to non-traditional theatre practices. Throughout my MA, I have also been looking at the role of such theatre in modern receptions of the ancient world. A major part of the project was therefore thinking about we could use the performance space, set design, props, costume and movement in the final piece. Thanks to the grant from the ICS, we were able to afford the materials so that we could really experiment with these elements. 

costumes and props

A key feature of ‘Dog-Tomb’ was that it took place en promenade and so both the actors and the audience moved through the space of the Crypt Gallery. I therefore wanted each area where the action took place to have a distinctive feel and look to it, in order to match the atmosphere of the writing in the three different scenes and to emphasise the fact that the audience was being transported, literally and metaphorically, to different places. The set design was therefore integral to making our own mark in such a distinctive and characteristic place as the Crypt Gallery. We used materials such as clay, pomegranates, driftwood, wool, painted fabric and fabric sculptures across the space to create a range of different textures and effects. We also hung paintings by the artist Marika Tyler-Clark (a second year student at the Slade School of Fine Art) in the passage that connected the first and second scene and in the entrance-way to the gallery so the audience was constantly surrounded by the aesthetic of the piece. There was therefore a lot of opportunity for experimentation. As Marika said; 

“ I worked on the set design and visuals used in the publicity for Dog Tomb. It was fantastic  working with such a rich network of academics and creatives from across and outside  UCL and such a privilege to work in the unique space of the Crypt. It was my first experience working in set design; creating paintings that could both work successfully within themselves and operate within a performance context was challenging but very stimulating.”

Howling scene

The audience were led between the different spaces by the chorus, giving them a very distinctive and important role. Their costumes were therefore key in helping them stand out but also not detracting from Hecuba being the character who is developed in a more traditional way. The costume designer, Chloe Dootson-Graube (an MA student at London College of Fashion) therefore decided to create very distinctive hoods in a striking red colour.

image with hooded costume

Costume was also important since it marked out Hecuba’s different situations in each scene, playing into the theme of transformation that overshadowed the whole piece. In the first scene, ‘The Un-Tombing’, we hear the chorus speak as if from her epitaph as she is imagined as speaking to us from beyond the grave. Hecuba therefore begins by wearing a dress made from latex and soil (made by freelance designer Johanna Hehemann) to represent her being buried. This is then removed to reveal a nude, skin-like costume to represent her being brought back to life.

Scene 2

In the second scene, ‘The Burning Mirror’, we see her flee Troy on the night of its capture. She manages to grab one item to take with her - the Sidonian robe that Paris brought her back from one of his trips. This is put on her by the chorus in a ritualistic fashion to reflect its importance to her but also the way she is almost arming herself like one of the male heroes we see in the Iliad since her war starts when Troy has fallen. 

The final scene, ‘The Ashes of Hair’, heavily utilised both props and costume.  The chorus begin covered by huge swathes of red organza fabric to represent the fallen debris and bodies of Troy as well as the fact that the Trojan women and Hecuba are now stuck inside tents in the Greek army camp. This fabric then transforms throughout the scene, baby Astayanax, the blood-soaked plains of Troy and finally, Polymestor’s body.    

headdress

Costume then took centre stage in the final moments as we see Hecuba transform into a dog which is indicated by her being dressed in a dress made entirely out of hair. She is then dressed in a headdress/mask that has one female face and two dog faces which was made from silicone by the artist Scarlett Pochet (second year student at the Slade School of Fine Art). Objects were therefore as much a part of the narrative as something that enhanced the narrative. As Chloe said; 

“The materials we were intending to use were absolutely central to the design process - in choosing our colour palette to reflect the space, the textures of the fabrics to reflect the sepulchral nature of the written text, the materials proved totally essential to the ambience we were aiming to create. We were very considerate of the materials that we would require to realise our vision during the design process, and subsequently, it was a real luxury to be able to be afforded the resources to fully realise that vision.  In particular, it was fantastic to be able to realise the hair dress in the way that we wanted it to be realised, which we wouldn't have been able to do without the generous grant we received.” 

Props on set

Utilising such a range of artistic talents not only brought many different dimensions to the project but it also broadened its reach. As well as students from the Slade and LCF, our singer, Laura,  was a music student at Goldsmiths and our drummer, Magda Onatra, a freelance artist. We therefore managed to get a varied audience that extended far beyond Classics or even UCL students. As a result all of our performances were fully booked out. The central London position of the gallery also meant that we had many people pop into the gallery, as they were exploring the church, on the Saturday afternoon when I opened the gallery as a exhibition space to showcase the artwork involved, A couple of visitors to the exhibition even came back for the final performance when I was able to squeeze in a few extra audience members.

Photo credits:

The photos of the set/artwork are by Zoe Harris-Wallis.

The photos of the performance itself are by Marika Tyler-Clark.