Interview with the Director of Prometheus and Frogs

Helen Eastman came to talk to the Classical Receptions Discussion Group in Cambridge on June 13th 2013. Here is an abridged version of the conversation. Spoiler alert: contains tantalising hints!

Q: This is the first double-bill of tragedy and comedy at the Cambridge Greek Play since 1927. Tell us why you wanted to do that.

A: The Cambridge Greek Play has presented only tragedies since the Birds in 1995. (I saw it as a teenager!) But tragedies are only half the story of Greek drama. It’s rare to see Aristophanes’ comedies in the original, because comedy is harder to put on: it’s difficult to make people laugh at a foreign-language play, and you have to update all the political satire. But those things are (I think!) surmountable. Also, Alex Silverman [the composer] and I have worked on several political satires, so we were keen on this challenge. We also enjoyed doing the last Greek Play so much that we wanted to develop our ideas on how to produce a tragedy too, and it makes perfect sense to have some comedy after the interval to send all that up. So I tentatively suggested a double-bill to the committee, and within five minutes it was clear that they all loved the idea. For a lot of young audience-members, going to the Greek Play on a school trip might be their one encounter with Greek drama in their early theatre-going years, and it’s great to show them both ends of the spectrum.

Q: It’s mid-June and the show’s in October. How far have you got with rehearsing?

A: The main rehearsal period is in late summer: the cast come back before term and work terrifyingly hard during five or six weeks of full-time rehearsals. But in April we also did some skills workshops - chorus-work, acting with masks, mime, a bit of puppetry… Between them, the cast have really wide skills, but not much formal drama training, so it’s like trying to do the first year of drama school in a week. It’s also a fun chance to bond and to talk through the plays with each other. As one ice-breaker, we learnt a song from the Frogs in translation, then each person had to come back the next day with it in a different style: we had Spanish folk, Les Mis, Abba, a beatbox version, and so on, then we combined them all in a medley. More recently the students have had exams, but the principals and the chorus of Prometheus have still been having lessons on pronouncing their parts, over many cups of tea.

Q: What difference does it make that the plays are in a foreign language?

A: I’m used to it, because I direct quite a lot of opera. But the Greek Play is special for two reasons. First, I dearly love the Greek language, particularly for the various rhythms used in the plays. Secondly, there’s less singing, which makes it harder to get the pronunciation right. Actors remember the rough meaning before their muscles remember how to make all the sounds fluently. I’ve built up a toolbox of ways to rehearse that stage. For example, I start with a literal translation, then we wade through the Greek, then go to a freer or improvised translation; or we boil each line down to a single action (e.g. ‘I plead with you; then you humiliate me; then…’). Gradually the shape of the scene and the memory for the words come together. The Greek has to be in people’s muscle-memory rather than just in their brains, or else you might panic on stage - and it’s hard to improvise your way through in ancient Greek!

Q: You mention improvisation: does every detail therefore have to be memorised?

A: Absolutely not. The point of the techniques I mentioned is to allow the actors to play around freely with unlocking the emotions of a scene. Many productions of Greek tragedy have flopped because they were too choreographed - ‘kneel down on the word “Zeus” and raise your left arm to the gods’ and so on. That takes away any sense of an active, spontaneous performance, and spontaneity in the rehearsal room is needed equally. That means the cast mustn’t ever be worrying about forgetting their lines. When we rehearsed Agamemnon, each actor had one line of Greek in their memory, which they could play like a joker any time they forgot a line - as long as they played with the right emotion for the rehearsal to carry on with its own momentum.

As for improvisation in the chorus’s movements, I’m inspired by Jacques Lecoq and European physical theatre: I try to train a group who can make good collective decisions, like a shoal of fish. I first got confidence in these techniques for a series of productions of Seamus Heaney’s Cure at Troy [a version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes], where the chorus frequently had to readapt their movements for a variety of theatre-spaces. I used the technique a lot for Agamemnon, though in the performances some choral movements were set in advance: because of the short timeframe, if I saw that one improvised movement in rehearsal worked particularly well, I had to step in and insist that they always followed that for the show.

Q: The Cambridge Greek Play tries to address a really broad audience. Does that make it a special opportunity and also a special challenge?

A: I can’t tell you how exciting that was in Agamemnon. I remember standing in the foyer, seeing 300 schoolchildren, half the Cambridge classics department, and an enclave of theatre professionals. There’s no point trying to please all these groups equally, but Alex Silverman and I put the emphasis on accessibility for younger audience-members: if a fourteen-year-old comes and is bored, you might put them off Greek tragedy for life, and that’s inexcusable. This is a unique opportunity every three years to get all those different groups into one space, sit them down, and show why I’m really excited about Greek drama. If that isn’t tangible, the director’s either not excited enough, or is failing in their responsibility to make it dramatic and beautiful.

Alex and I have recently been thinking hard about how to deal with the breadth of audience in terms of political satire and comedy. What musical references might a teenager and a classics professor share? I went to a panto last December with a classics professor, who was horrified when she was the only person in the audience who didn’t know the number-one song everyone else was singing along to. The same goes for face recognition: would everyone recognise a face-mask of Boris Johnson?

Q: So there will be anachronistic modern references in the Frogs?

A: Absolutely - lots. It’s important to see anachronisms not as a replacement for an obsolete joke, but as themselves part of the humour. The Frogs is going to look contemporary. That allows for visual satire - e.g. you can turn the chorus into the cabinet with paper masks, or you can reference Kermit. The surtitles will also have fun with mixing the literal and the modernised: sometimes, they might give an ancient term and then explain it rather long-windedly as part of a send-up of the process of that way of explaining Greek drama.

Having said that, there have been versions where Aeschylus and Euripides become modern authors [for example in Oxford in 1892 when Euripides was clearly modelled on Oscar Wilde], and we’re not going down that route. After all, we’ll have just put on a play by Aeschylus (or at least, attributed to him), and people will be able to recognise the stock characters of the traditional writer versus the younger rebel, whether or not they’ve read any Greek plays before.

Q: How will jokes come across in the surtitle translation?

A: I’m translating the Frogs specially, and the surtitling will be essential to the comedy. For example, you can have an actor giving a long speech and eventually the surtitler just comes in with ‘Sh*t!’. Our surtitler is going to be an actor onstage (someone from the Agamemnon cast who wanted to return, but didn’t have time to learn a spoken part!). Characters will be able to dispute the translation by writing their own surtitles on blackboards. Also, we plan to build the surtitling screens into the set so that you don’t have to keep moving your eyes too much and miss the humour on stage.

For Prometheus I haven’t decided on the translation yet. For Agamemnon I commissioned one, but then it feels rude when you have to cut it - it’s always a surprise at the dress rehearsal how the surtitles have to be shorter than you expected. Recent performances of Prometheus have generally been highly political adaptations, and there isn’t really an obvious translation which is fairly literal but also reads well enough to be giggle-proof.

Q: Tell us a bit about the scenery and costumes.

A: I’m working with a designer called Neil Irish. He’s one of the best designers for organising the spatial dynamics and logic of a play. The design for Prometheus has Prometheus on a very clear vertical axis and everyone else on a horizontal plane; in particular the chorus will use their movements to give dynamics to this plane which will otherwise be sparse.

I like to ensure the production’s visual imagery springs from the text - and a chorus of twelve people can summon up any image. Just at the moment I’m not particularly interested in the type of production of Greek tragedy which is patently set in the Iraq War, but equally you can’t be timeless about military costumes. It might be partly to avoid this problem that I chose Prometheus, where our costumes will emphasise the mythical and fantastical aspect of a play with so many immortal characters. Various elements (earth, air, fire, water, wind) will appear. The play contains a lot of metaphors, so we will develop them visually. The finale involves the world splitting apart: that’s a tough one, and we’re still bartering with the theatre about which of our various options will not create too much ‘mess’!

By contrast, Frogs is going to be very open and theatrical: prop boxes and costume rails will be visible, and right there for actors to make use of very quickly, to keep the pace up.

Q: Will you be using masks?

A: Frogs will have some very low-tech paper masks for political satire. In Agamemnon the chorus had a ‘mask’ of heavy make-up which gave them uniformity, and Prometheus will have some similar elements. The principals of Prometheus won’t be masked, however. They already have to communicate over the language-barrier, and wearing a mask really focuses the audience’s attention on the language and its emotional cues: so if people can’t understand the language, you’re giving them nothing unless you can rely on fantastic physical performances which are unachievable with an amateur cast and six weeks of rehearsal. Despite all this, there will be a cameo for a masked second chorus at one point.

Q: Do you have advice on how to prepare a school party for seeing the show?

A: Schoolchildren have lots of reference-points for satire, anarchy and naughtiness. They need to understand through those reference-points how Greek comedy poked fun at the establishment but in a very intelligent way. Another point is the fantastical element of Frogs: it’s got dancing amphibians! So you can transmit the idea that Greek comedy is wonderfully silly as well as clever and political.

The sexual gags in a lot of Greek comedy - where originally the actors wore a strap-on phallus after all - can prove very distracting for a teenage sense of humour. The Frogs is actually less dependent on sexual humour. There is, however, going to be a strategic arrangement of a ladder and two space-hoppers at one point, so watch out for that! Alex and I faced a different problem on this front with Cloudcuckooland, our version of the Birds for eight-year-olds. Obviously we had to find something equivalently riotous to replace the sexual jokes: there were a lot of bird droppings made of shaving foam flying about!

Q: Finally, how do you view the idea of being authentic to the original conditions of performance?

A: I don’t see theatre as involving revered texts whose originality has to be recaptured. I write and direct plays which are of the moment, and require practical decision-making to get them on to the stage effectively. Anyway, you simply don’t put on a play in ancient Greek to create an authentic experience. And this is a proscenium-arch theatre in Cambridge, not an open-air theatre pervaded by the smell of the Athenian spring.

Among my reasons for putting something on in Greek is to allow people to hear an aurally fantastic language. Alex Silverman and I share a nerdy interest in Greek rhythm, and the plays use their verse and metre to communicate emotion in a way which our theatrical tradition stopped long ago. (English theatre just uses prose and/or a single metre.) That’s one example of how contemporary theatre can get inspired by Greek drama. I want people to realise as much as I do how brilliant these plays are - not from a sense of reverence, but from a sense that we could learn a lot from their qualities about how to make contemporary drama.