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New films, old drama: an evening with Barefaced Greek

ICS Research Associate Dr. Caroline Spearing reports on ‘An evening with Barefaced Greek’, an ICS public event which was held in Senate House on Tuesday 12th June 2018.

 

A dark figure leans on a parapet, wrapped up against the cold, his head and shoulders barely visible against a nocturnal cityscape, a lantern at his side. A string ensemble thrums ominously. Slowly, the figure turns to face us, then away to gaze over the city. He sits, pours himself a mug of tea from a thermos flask, warms himself at a fire. Finally, lying on a scrap of blanket, he begins to speak, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up:

θεοὺς μὲν αἰτῶ τῶνδ᾽ ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων …

‘The Watchman’, from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

***

To a soundtrack of pizzicato cello and maracas, a young woman in jeans and a green top looks meditatively in a mirror. She addresses her reflection with bitter resolution. Gradually her reflection is joined by those of other women. ‘Πολεμός δὲ γυναιξὶ μελήσει!’ they cry in triumph, a cry which reverberates through the ensuing scenes of craft activism, as women first knit and then wear, super-hero style, gigantic pink woollen pants – on beaches, on escalators, turning cartwheels.

Πολεμός δὲ γυναιξὶ μελήσει!

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

***

A young man, troubled, stands deep in thought in a gallery of classical sculpture. It is Poseidon. As the camera pans over the serenity, terror and anguish of the marble men, women and children, Poseidon tells of the fall of his beloved Troy. Together with a malevolent, slant-eyed Athena, her heels clicking on the stone floor, he coldly plots the ruin of the Greek fleet as it makes its way home.

‘Poseidon and Athena’, from Euripides’ Trojan Women

***

The Watchman, from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. (Image copyright Barefaced Greek.)
The Watchman, from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. (Image copyright Barefaced Greek)

Recent decades have seen a bewildering number of English-language versions of Greek tragedy on the London stage, many of them very fine indeed. Opportunities to hear the plays in the original Greek, however, are few and far between: every year at King’s College London; every three years at Oxford and Cambridge, and the same at Bradfield College in Berkshire; and honourable mention should be made of the annual Greek play which forms part of the JACT Summer School at Bryanston.

Barefaced Greek set out to remedy this. Under the aegis of producer (and Classics teacher) Maírín O’Hagan and director Helen Eastman, they have made a series of what they call ‘accessible shorts’ for the YouTube generation. On 12th June 2018, three of these films – extracts from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (‘The Watchman’), Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and Euripides’ Trojan Women (‘Poseidon and Athena’) were shown to an enthralled Senate House audience, and followed by a discussion chaired by James Robson of the Open University and including Helen and Maírín as well as actor Rebecca Scott and actor and musician Leon Scott. Convinced of the power of spoken Greek, of the music of the verse, and of its central importance to the experience of the performed text, Helen and Maírín set out to present the language in a medium which today’s teenagers could recognise as film – much as Baz Luhrmann did with Shakespearean drama in his Romeo + Juliet.

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. (Image copyright Barefaced Greek.)
Still from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. (Image copyright Barefaced Greek)

Maírín and Helen – three-times director of the Cambridge Greek Play – are both steeped in the ancient world and in the Greek language. Not so the actors, whose clarity of enunciation, metrical accuracy and fluency of speech is even more remarkable given their total lack of familiarity with the language prior to becoming involved in the project. Leon and Rebecca both spoke powerfully of the challenges involved in memorising a part in a completely strange language. Both nonetheless totally convince in their delivery, communicating the meaning of their lines in a way that is by no means a given in modern Greek-language productions.

For Helen, the dearth of cinematic predecessors has presented both a challenge and an opportunity. She spoke of the differences of scale between theatre and film and the difficulties of working with the chorus within a more naturalistic medium, noting the sense of play inherent in a generic conversation with few pre-existing rules. In particular, she commented on the problems presented by Aristophanic metatheatricality, above all in terms of banter with the audience. How, in sum, is one to represent a 2,500-year-old text with dignity and gravity in a completely different medium?

Poseidon and Athena, from Euripides’ Trojan Women. (Image copyright Barefaced Greek.)
(Poseidon and Athena, from Euripides’ Trojan Women. Image copyright Barefaced Greek)

Future projects include a chorus from Sophocles’ Antigone, with music by the young composer Alex Silverman; another scene from Trojan Women; and the opening of Aristophanes’ Frogs, with a Dionysus unable to ride a donkey and a donkey who steals the show. Tantalising glimpses from recent filming can be seen on Barefaced Greek’s Facebook page and on Twitter (@barefacedgreek).

It is the combination of uncompromising adherence to the classical Greek text with a ready fluency in digital communication which makes Barefaced Greek’s work so courageous and innovative. In providing access to Greek drama within a readily available format, they significantly widen the potential reach of the genre without ever becoming patronising or try-hard. Long may they flourish, and may the moths never nibble their pink woollen pants.

 

You can find out more about Barefaced Greek, and watch their films, on their website. They are also currently fundraising to enable them to edit the footage for their new series of films. Details of the fundraiser are here.