by Professor Simon Goldhill
You have probably seen one of those blissfully dated films – usually with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland – where the kids exclaim, “we have the barn by the river; we have the team; we could put on a show of our own!”. I was reminded of this scene repeatedly this summer when the Almeida theatre decided to do a full reading of the Iliad in English in the British Museum.
Robert Icke and Rupert Goold are two of the most brilliant young directors working in Britain today, and they were responsible for deciding to have the whole summer season at the Almeida theatre in London dedicated to Greek tragedy – the Oresteia, the Bacchae, the Medea. It was a staggering success, with every show sold out. The Oresteia transferred to the West End; the Bacchae featured a new translation by Anne Carson, one of the world’s finest poets – and it didn’t hurt that Ben Wishaw, the hottest of hot actors was playing Dionysus; and Medea was re-written by Ruth Cusk, one of Britain’s most challenging and sharp novelists – her first play. In Lia Williams as Clytemnestra and Kate Fleetwood as Medea, the theatre had lured two of the greatest actresses of our generation – and their performances were staggering. Both the Oresteia and the Medea were modern versions, not translations – and provided evenings of brilliant challenge, especially to the classicist who knew what Aeschylus and Euripides had written.
But the Iliad was an afterthought, imagined in one of those pub moments, where someone has a wild and exciting idea, and suddenly it gains momentum, and then it happens… They had their barn by the river – in this case the British Museum. In the cavernous grand hall a stage was erected, with screens to show the tweets that were hoped to flow in, and two huge modern African sculptures on either side. Cameras to live-stream the event were set up, and a makeshift green room was organized downstairs. Banks of chairs were organized, hopefully. They also had their team: between them Robert and Rupert have a pretty good pair of little black books and a large number of London’s finest actors could be called on to give up an hour or so of their time to read. The translation of Robert Fagles was chosen, cut back only slightly, with an expectation that it would take some sixteen hours to read. The show would end at the theatre with a paying audience and a cast party. How to get from the museum to the theatre? Well, let’s just get on a bus, and keep reading and filming…. You can see what I mean about the Mickey Rooney style of improvisation. And, boy, did they get together a show of their own!
When I turned up that morning at about 8.00, the scene was chaotic. The doors of the museum were still locked, but inside staff were running around checking feeds, and making sure that all the technology was on song. The handovers between actors needed co-ordination, the script needed its tweaks, actors needed help with pronunciation, and were going over the script with exaggerated attention. Rupert and Robert presided with experimental glee. I was asked if I could do a two-minute introduction to the Iliad to start it off (of course, I usually do twelve lectures…), but I was happy enough to adlib something – and I was given the catalogue of ships to read, on the grounds that I at least would know how to pronounce all those names. (And unlike the actors, I was just thrilled to be reading with such a cast, and didn’t mind the short straw of the obviously boring bit…). At one minute to nine, no-one had any idea what was about to happen.
At nine o’clock the doors opened – and four hundred people rushed in to grab the seats, bags filled with books, sandwiches and drinks. I know the classics community well enough after all these years, and I was only mildly surprised at the numbers and enthusiasm of the crowd. But the theatre folk were open-mouthed with awe.
I duly said my two minutes, and read the first six lines in Greek, and then, with the director’s clash of a gong, the one sound effect in the whole un-Hollywood day, handed over to Simon Russell Beale to start, with his extraordinary, echoing voice, “Rage…”.
What followed was remarkable at so many levels. First of all, the cast itself… There were so many great figures of the theatre, and in such company there was a palpable sense of competition and joy – each listening to each other, and striving to produce the most extraordinary narrative. Brian Cox had played Agamemnon in Troy – and here he was with a far, far better script to work with. Rory Kinnear, fresh from Spectre (though I would prefer to remember his award-winning Iago at the National Theatre) vied with Ben Wishaw from London Spy (oh, and Hamlet) in the battle of the young guns – a thoroughly Iliadic duel. I passed on the baton to Janet Suzman, who had played in so many great Greek tragic performances in the 1980s (and whose face graces my paperback copy of the translation of the Oresteia by Hugh Lloyd-Jones). For someone like me who has been going to the theatre in London for so many years, Lesley Manville and Simon Callow brought a host of memories to flood through their readings (with Lesley Manville, in one awful moment, bringing into my mind her Margaret Thatcher, not a figure I want to inhabit my Iliad even in a bad dream). Tobias Menzies, Samuel West, Mark Gatiss, Bertie Carvel – if you need a line up of heroes they are your men. (If you saw Bertie Carvel in Matilda, then his lusty rendition of Homeric violence might have raised an eyebrow…). Kate Fleetwood, Sinead Cusack, Lia Williams matched them for power and for emotional energy. And the evening was brought to a close by the mesmerizing stillness of Tim Piggott-Smith. What was so remarkable was seeing how Homer’s story could coax such different and yet compelling and complementary approaches. And to remember what a difference performance makes to such an epic.
The second remarkable thing in these awful days of misguided educational policy was the fact that the museum had 10,000 more visitors than usual that day (and it wasn’t even raining), and it was estimated that at least 10,000 visitors stayed to hear an hour or so (and a good number of that first rush stayed the whole duration) – and more than 50,000 watched more than two hours of the live-stream on the day (and many more since). There were some tourists who looked very bemused – but then stayed an inordinate length of time as the plot worked its magic. My point is not to praise the “impact” of the event, but rather to underline the immense appetite for Homer that this revealed. A huge audience tuned in or came along because they wanted to hear the Iliad and sat in rapt attention. There are so many educationalists who seem committed to an ideology that would deny such a need and such an appreciation.
What’s more – and I find this certainly a remarkably satisfying thought – in an era where we are all being encouraged so intently to monetarize and capitalize everything we do, this was a production where everyone gave their time for free, tickets were free (until the theatre itself), and for the price of actors’ bus fares, a labour of love took shape for an audience who could come and go as they pleased. Such events should be cherished not just as a moment of classics brought to life, but as a brief glimpse of the values we should wish to see in our public culture.
You can probably guess what happened next. Someone said, “what about the Odyssey?” – and a few weeks later, I was walking into the Almeida being filmed reading the opening lines of the Odyssey in Greek, before the cameras set off on an odyssey around London, with Ian McKellan in Islington Town Hall and Juliet Stevenson doing the Cyclops on – of course – the London Eye.
The summer of 2015 will be remembered as an annus mirabilis for Greek tragedy on stage in Britain – four Oresteias, and a string of other great productions. In ancient Athens of the fifth century BCE, the festival of the Great Dionysia, where tragedies were performed annually, was matched every four years by the Great Panathenaia, where along with other athletic and cultural events, the whole of Homer was performed by rhapsodes in competition. There was something pleasingly apposite that the Almeida’s festival of Greek tragedies should have led to these all too rare full-scale readings of epic. Tragedy is constantly engaged in re-writing and re-valuing the narratives of epic. To hear both forms echo with such power in performance in the modern city was truly memorable.
There were many amazing moments, but for me the anecdote that captures the spirit best is this. In the scene where Clytemnestra is preparing to welcome Agamemnon back from Troy, she explains, as if in a news interview, that she is not responsible for her husband’s decisions with regard to the war. The lights in the auditorium went up during this scene, changing the atmosphere, and allowing Lia Williams to make eye-contact with the audience. In one of the final performances, as she said her bitter speech about a husband’s role in the war, she found herself staring intently face to face into the eyes of Cherie Blair. The ability of tragedy to speak painfully to modernity is what keeps us studying it.
Simon Goldhill is Professor of Greek Literature and Culture in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow and Director of Studies in Classics at King’s College, Cambridge. He is also Director of CRASSH (the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities).
This year’s Classical Association Prize – for the person whose work is felt to have raised the profile of Classics in the public eye – has been awarded to Rupert Goold, Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre, for the Almeida Greeks season which took place between May and November 2015.