New life for lost Greek drama: reflections on reconstructing and staging Euripides’ Melanippe Wise
Written by Andriana Domouzi
Dr. Andriana Domouzi shares her experience of putting together a theatre project which was supported by one of the ICS’s small grants for public engagement.
On the 9th November 2019, theatre company Cyborphic produced a fully reconstructed version of Euripides’ fragmentary tragedy Melanippe Wise in a Staged Reading at the Hope Theatre in Angel, London. The project, which consisted of the Staged Reading and a workshop series that led to it, was – to my knowledge – the first attempt at a theatrical reconstruction of this Euripidean lost play worldwide. The new play is based on my doctoral research and was written by playwright Dr Christos Callow Jr, who is also a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Derby. The series of workshops ‘Lost Greek Tragedy: Staging the Fragmented & the Fantastic’ that we led at the Cockpit theatre in Marylebone on the 26th and 27th October 2019 were the first public engagement activities we had organised around the Melanippe Wise project, aiming to familiarise non-specialists with the classical research around fragmentary Greek tragedies and the creative process that can be followed to reconstruct such plays, using Melanippe Wise as a case study. The workshops and the Staged Reading were partially funded by the Institute of Classical Studies’ public engagement grant.
I had originally reconstructed the plot of Melanippe Wise along with that of Melanippe Captive – the other lost Euripidean tragedy based on the relatively unknown and complex Thessalian myth of Melanippe – for my PhD (a commentary with introduction on the fragments and testimonies for both Melanippe tragedies) at Royal Holloway, University of London (completed in 2018; an expanded version is forthcoming with De Gruyter). After founding the theatre company Cyborphic in late 2017, we started working on the new play based on my academic reconstruction of Melanippe Wise. Meanwhile I also organised in June 2018 the academic workshop ‘Reconstructing & Adapting Fragmentary Ancient Greek Tragedy: Methodologies & Challenges for Classicists and Theatre Practitioners’, which highlighted the various methodologies for adapting or reconstructing a fragmentary tragedy; this event was a milestone in my own research on Classical Performance Reception and my approach to reconstructing Melanippe Wise for the stage. Upon completion of my doctorate, I had presented Christos with a detailed structure of the reconstructed tragedy and the main events of each epeisodion, having placed the surviving fragments in the various epeisodia and stasima; our goal was to integrate the translated fragments within the new play. Christos, who had studied acting in Athens and had lectured on Classical Greek Theatre at the University of Leeds, was very familiar with the qualities and attitudes of Euripidean characters; after he completed the first draft in late 2018, we worked on revising several aspects of the play from January to October 2019, mostly focusing on those areas of the plot that the fragments and testimonies leave relatively dubious.
The public engagement workshops in late October 2019 were well-attended and participants were from different backgrounds: secondary school Drama and English teachers, cultural advisors, directors, actors, playwrights and other professionals and students interested in ancient Greek myth and drama; most did not have prior knowledge of fragmentary Greek tragedy and attended the workshops eager to gain access to specialist knowledge around a niche area of Greek tragedy, an additional motive for them being the previously unexplored material of Melanippe Wise. The workshops focused on two strands of enquiry; the first was the reconstruction, research and dramaturgical decisions while the second was the adaptation methodologies and subsequent performance of a reconstructed character, focusing on Christos’ adapted monologue of Melanippe’s mother Hippo as dea ex machina. In our version, Hippo appears on the mechane as a talking horse and the practical component of the workshop was decisive in providing a platform for experimenting with alternative methods of performing the talking animal in a Greek tragedy context – processes that were developed further during the rehearsals for the Staged Reading. Following the two non-specialist workshops, we led a final invite-only intensive text-based workshop; the goal was to explore the depiction of women and aspects of gender, agency and consent in Melanippe Wise and to discuss them thoroughly with colleagues and fellow artists; this helped to re-examine how certain pieces of dialogue were worded, e.g. scenes where rational Melanippe finds herself in conflict with a group of privileged irrational men (such as the chorus).
During the rehearsals at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden Town, we had the opportunity to include the invaluable contribution of virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Thodoris Ziarkas. I had commissioned Thodoris to perform the traditional Northern Greek bagpipe (askaulos/gaida) during the stasima, accompanying the chorus at the Staged Reading; the reason behind the choice of a Greek bagpipe as the Staged Reading’s musical instrument had clearly to do with the primeval effect of its sound, an echo of a piercing howling from the past. Thodoris joined us at the rehearsals having brought two bagpipes; before that, we had only told him the basic plotline. Responding to the unravelling of the plot, he improvised with the bagpipes and started using them to create soundscapes that would resemble the crying sound of Melanippe’s twin baby boys Aeolus and Boeotus, especially when they are about to be thrown into the fire – as instructed by the relentless Hellen, the ancestor of all Greeks and Melanippe’s grandfather.
Melanippe was performed by Cyborphic’s Associate Artist, actress and playwright Bee Scott, with whom we have collaborated on several projects, including our TALOS III: Science Fiction Theatre Festival of London. The Staged Reading was directed by Justin Murray, who is experienced with directing ancient Greek dramas, including with his own company Catharsis. Orla Sanders had the parts of Hippo and the Nurse, Alex Andreou played Melanippe’s grandfather Hellen and Robin King was Melanippe’s father Aeolus, King of Aeolis; Harold Addo performed the Shepherd. The Chorus was jointly performed by Orla Sanders and Harold Addo. Bee performed a Melanippe bursting with both youthfulness and maturity of thought; Orla performed a powerful dea ex machina, the prophesising talking horse Hippo via physical theatre; Alex’s Hellen was a merciless and fearsome father of all Greeks; Robin recreated a most Euripidean King Aeolus, struggling with guilt and indecisiveness, and placing too much trust on his father; Harold portrayed a truly puzzled Shepherd as well as a conformist male chorus together with Orla. There was genuine enthusiasm from the artists; Bee has written on the play and her role in her blog and Alex shared on his Twitter account his reaction on performing the reconstructed character of Hellen: ‘‘I’m in this. … I get to create a Euripides role. And that doesn’t happen often, let me tell you. Come, see and hear a little piece of history.’’
After this first presentation of the play, we received constructive feedback from both general non-specialist audience and peers from academia and the theatre industry; we had invited classicists and theatre practitioners to share their thoughts. It has been heart-warming to receive positive reviews from peers; By Jove Theatre Company wrote: ‘‘Congratulations to Andriana Domouzi and Christos Callow Jr on a fantastic reading of Melanippe Wise, very inspiring work! Fantastic story of female wisdom triumphing over male hypocrisy and mob ignorance.’’ Apart from social media targeted ads, we had also advertised the event at the relevant international mailing lists; through these channels, several colleagues and artists outside of the UK had reached out (both before and after the event) to express their interest, requesting to be kept updated regarding the full production and the subsequent publication of the play. The event was fully booked well in advance and we had received requests to operate a waiting list – which we did and could happily offer a few last-minute cancelled tickets to people from the list. We are delighted that our Staged Reading gained such attention and that my research contributed to theatre audiences discovering an unconventional and remarkable lost tragedy of Euripides.
A full documentation of the reconstruction and the creative process for the creation of our Melanippe Wise will be given in a chapter I am co-authoring with Christos; this will be published in 2021 in the collective volume Tragedy Resurrected that I am currently editing (De Gruyter; series: Trends in Classics~Pathways of Reception 5). We are also making further plans for a full run of the play.
We are very grateful to the ICS, whose public engagement grant contributed to paying our creatives: Greek bagpipe specialist Thodoris Ziarkas, award-winning illustrating duo Sinjin Li who designed a bespoke poster, and photographer Matei Răducanu; the grant also covered part of our travelling and printing expenses as well as social media ads. The workshops and the Staged Reading were further funded by the University of Derby’s College of Arts, Humanities & EducationResearch Fund.