Ancient Olympia Performance

17 Jun 2015: ‘Sparagmos’, ancient Greek for ‘dismemberment’, seems an unlikely title for a performance which took place in Exeter College Chapel. Nevertheless, as the theme of both Euripides’ ‘The Bacchae’ and Poliziano’s ‘Orpheus’, which I paired as a double-bill for the Turl Street Arts Festival in February 2015, the title could not have been more appropriate. Rendered into vibrant, modern English by Dr David Maskell, supported by a team of forty talented performers and with specially composed music by Ben van Leeuwen, Balliol’s Senior Organ Scholar, the plays met with resounding success.

Part of my aim in directing this production was to introduce classical theatre to young people. As well as implementing a special student rate of £1.50 per play, we took ‘The Bacchae’ to Oxford’s Cheney School, where we performed in front of around a hundred secondary school students. For feedback on this initiative and more information regarding my objectives, see the following links:

Oxford Early Career Academic Outreach Network

Performance in the East Oxford Community Classics Centre

Following the success of our performance, we were contacted by the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation, a non-for-profit organisation founded by the internationally acclaimed film and theatre director Michael Cacoyannis in Athens in 2003. One of the main goals of the Foundation is to support innovative ideas, teams and young artists, especially those in the theatre industry, helping them to bring their first creative endeavours to life. The Foundation invited us to represent the United Kingdom with our English translation of ‘The Bacchae’ at the first ‘International Proscenium for Students and Youth’. This took place in Ancient Olympia, the home of the first Olympic Games, as part of the ‘Ancient Drama in 21st Century Education’ programme, which aimed to highlight the importance and relevance of classical theatre to young people. The programme was included in the project ‘Design and Production of Educational Material towards the Promotion of the Importance of Theatre in Antiquity and Nowadays’, conceived by the Directorate of Museums of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs, as part of their operational programme ‘Education and Lifelong Learning’. The Foundation thus designed and implemented the whole project, hosting members of eleven participating teams. More details of the Proscenium can be found here.

Attracted by the Proscenium’s outreach aspect, we were keen to show Greek students the impact of ancient tragedy on British theatre. With generous funding from Balliol College, Turl Street Arts Festival and the Oxford University Classical Drama Society, the whole team was able to travel to Olympia and perform at the outdoor Drouva amphitheatre on May 8th 2015 alongside troupes from Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Egypt.

Our retelling of Dionysus’ bloody revenge on the swaggering King Pentheus was very well-received. Greek actor Vasileios Tsertsidis, who played Creon in a production of Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’, commented that our performance was ‘absolutely outstanding’. A review from Calliope Liadi, the Artistic Director of the Proscenium, was equally complimentary:

‘Lucy Rayfield’s direction was fresh and spirited, full of lyricism. She succeeded in eliciting elements of both Shakespearean and classic musical theatre to reveal the irony and drama of the ancient text. The actors were wonderful and very expressive, and the whole team worked with extreme professionalism and ingenuity.’

Florence Read, President of the Turl Street Arts Festival, was also able to attend the Proscenium. She commented that our performance was:

‘a truly unique piece of theatre which did justice to a witty and accessible translation and a beautiful score. The audience reception was overwhelmingly positive and I took inspiration for my own work from the incredible talent of Lucy and her cast who brought the complex story alive. Rather than going abroad it felt as if the play was finally coming home to where it belonged, a triumph for the team in every sense!’

All of the cast and crew found it to be a wonderful experience. Not only did we enjoy performing our own play, but it was wonderful to witness other interpretations of classical comedies and tragedies by troupes from many different countries. Three to four productions took place daily, with performances by over a hundred and sixty young actors and their instructors. These plays were appreciated by a wide and diverse audience; most importantly, since entry was free, many young students were able to attend.

DVDs of our production are available at several Oxford libraries. For more information on past and upcoming performances, contact me at lucy.rayfield@balliol.ox.ac.uk or read about them at Vitruvian Productions.

Lucy Rayfield, Balliol College 

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