I’ve been noticing a bit of a trend this year for all things Ancient Greek – whether it’s TV programme Troy: Fall of a City on the BBC, stage productions of ancient plays, or shows inspired by myth & legend. Aside from the Tudors, Ancient Greece was my absolute favourite topic. It was great to cover in history lessons (especially once I got to GCSE and we studied the history of medicine), but what really interested me was the mythology and how it tied into their religion. In fact, I was very tempted to ‘convert’ to this religion as it made a lot more sense to me than Christianity; the gods may be all-powerful, but they have incredibly human traits like spite & jealousy, and the way their legends explain the reasons behind natural events is really appealing. Christianity is terribly vanilla in comparison.
I digress. So far this year (in London), we’ve had a couple of modernised versions of classic plays, a revival of a musical from 2010 that uses one particular legend as its basis, and some new musicals using well-known figures from Greek mythology, amongst other things. On top of this, the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe featured a significant number of productions of Greek classics (plus a revival of a musical based on a Greek comedy), and the RSC’s winter season also features a rarely played Shakespeare play set in the Trojan War.
Surprisingly, I’ve not seen many of these: Electra at The Bunker, Becoming Shades at the VAULT Festival, Troilus and Cressida at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Medea Electronica at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and Myth the Musical at The Other Palace. Hadestown at the National is definitely on my list, if I can get my hands on a ticket, however Mythic (at Charing Cross Theatre) is not – whilst it’s had some great reviews, it’s just not grabbing me, and quite a lot of things at that theatre turn out to be a bit mediocre.
So why has Ancient Greece experienced a resurgence of interest this year? You can’t ignore the fact that there is a wealth of material to draw upon – whether you go for one of the many myths & legends, or choose a classic play as your starting point – although Medea, Electra, Orpheus & Eurydice, and Persephone seem to be the big favourites. Maybe we’re just going back to basics, or coming to the conclusions that the old ones really are the best…
What’s interesting to consider is that sixth century BC Greece is considered to be the birthplace of theatre – in fact, there was something of a cultural revolution in the classical world at that time – as well as democracy. You had comedies, tragedies and satyr plays to choose from, and these would cover anything from religion & mythology to contemporary politics; theatres would actually be multipurpose civic spaces, ensuring that culture and politics were always intertwined, making these auditoria havens of free speech. Though as the art form developed, it veered more into the bracket of spectacle and raising the status of the actors; Plato saw theatre as entertainment and not truth, whereas Aristotle thought it spoke to ideals and emotions. In reality there is space for both of these viewpoints to coexist.
When you consider the tumultuous state of politics across the world, it’s little wonder that we’ve gone back to revisit some ancient stories to look for answers. As well as the burgeoning concept of democracy, theirs was a time of constant conflict and upheaval – whether it’s something like the various stages of the Peloponnesian War (between Athens and Sparta) or the rise of the magpie-like Romans, who absorbed elements of the cultures they conquered to create their empire. Theatre rolled with the punches and adapted according to what was needed at the time: political works can be quite cathartic, but there’s also a need for lighthearted distractions in times of darkness.
In the BBC documentary Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth, Dr Michael Scott says, “These plays still speak to us today. They reveal the fundamental contradictions, emotions and possibilities that are represented in human existence.” We know that history tends to repeat itself, and cultural influences also cycle back to what’s gone before – so now we find ourselves back at the beginning, where we may start to learn from our mistakes.