Saturday, 15 October 2016

A Script for an Unmade YouTube Video

Howdy howdy folks, and welcome to The Vile Video. My name is the Ghost Face Critic, and thank you for taking the time to tune in. I coming to you live and direct from Scotland, and today I'll be talking about two plays I haven't seen. Shocking, I know. But it is 2016, and having half-baked opinions is the new academic rigour.

The Early Days of a Better Nation

Right now, two Scottish theatres are presenting contemporary versions of Greek myths. At Glasgow's Citizens, top playwright Zinnie Harris has updated that patriarchal Ur-text, The Oresteia as This Restless House, which gets the Dominic Hill directorial treatment, while the farewell production from Mark Thomson at Edinburgh's Lyceum is Chris Hannah's adaptation of The Iliad, a proper classic and, according to critic Mark Brown, 'the foundation stone of Western literature'.

He also says that 'Thomson’s staging is eager to grasp the seminal in Homer’s poem', which conjures up an intriguing image of the director with all fluid running through his fingers.

But I'm not here to make jism jokes. I'm here to ask: what makes the Greeks inspire the Scots right now?

I have no idea

Greek plays, like Shakespeare, often get staged when a director can't be bothered with all this new writing or complicated thinking: people will turn up for a bit of culture, the company can just trot out the story without worrying about interpretation and everyone feels that they've done something important. Dominic Hill won't do that - he can't have a cheeky cigarette without enabling an unexpectedly superb central performance and an eclectic mis-en-scene. And as loads of critics have mentioned, showing their originality of thought, adapting The Iliad is ambitious, even if you get Chris Hannan to do it, who made a decent fist of Crime and Punishment for Dominic Hill.

I'll give you my best guess. Beneath the bravado and bullshit (hello, Tommy Sheridan!), Scotland's having a good think about national identity. We've got a national theatre, something that only usually turns up once the nation state has established itself - and might be a key indicator of a sense of nationhood - check out how most European countries founded national theatres in the nineteenth century, pretty soon after escaping some empire's clutches. The contemporary version of this process includes rows on Facebook, terrible videos on YouTube filmed in a politician's back-garden (hello again, Tommy!) and pondering by artists about what it all means.

Back in the day, they'd have a revolution. I like this version better.

Being a nation state these days is difficult: it used to be all about sovereignty - the freedom to bully and oppress citizens within their own borders - but, as Nigel Farage won't stop reminding us, that power is now vested in the European Union. Any consideration of cultural identity has to consider the international heritage. And massive economic failure notwithstanding, that means, at some point, getting to grips with the Greeks. The ancient ones, mostly, because, in the fifth century BC, after kicking Persian ass, the city of Athens went hog-wild on philosophy, theatre and democracy. 

Plenty of lessons can be learnt there, but let's stick to tragedy. It's naive to say that the Athenians invented theatre, but the shenanigans of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristotle and the gang provides a template - even a bench-mark -  for European ideas about why it's a good idea to watch a bunch of people showing off on a raised platform. 

For Dominic Hill, it's obvious. He likes a challenge, and putting on an Oresteia remix lets him swing with the greats. Getting Zinnie Harris to mess about with it is a no-brainer. She's tops for dystopian visions, whether its people eating dead horses or watching the lights go out on civilisation.

Thomson, meanwhile, has done plenty of cool stuff but if he wants to go out with a bang - why not a three hour adaptation of one of the books that started it all?

Going back to the source - in this case, one of the sources of, like, civilisation - is a fine way to define yourself. Future generations of academics can rate how these interpretations of the classics compare to other versions, what they tell us about the society that produced them, plus they have enough weight to get the attention of audiences right now. 

It's like: Scotland is all grown up now. Check it, we can run with the ancients.

That's not enough

But Zinnie and Dominic and Chris and Mark and their teams aren't just proving that their cultural gonads are working. The specific choices mean something. 


Harris is taking a crack at The Oresteia, a play that deliberately praised democracy and male power, inviting the audience to get on board the patriarchy train and show the world what real justice looks like. Getting under the hood of Aeschylus and giving his tyres a good kick allows her to think about the status of women, what justice means now and how the personal gets up in the political's grill.

The Iliad is dangerous. As that film Troy proves, if you don't have the chops, you can fuck up some serious story-telling. And despite The Guardian theatre critic's odd assertion that Hannan's script adds psychology depth to Homer - read the last book, son, to see some deep shit on the relationship between warrior and father and motivation and compassion - The Iliad is heavy as Chuck D's Uzi. But there's plenty of chances for a writer to bounce off the source text and give it meditations on war, honour, metaphysics, the lot.

More Seminal Fluid

Anyhow, both these shows have got me eager to grasp the seminal. I think the companies are using the past to think about the future, and we all think we know what Greek tragedy and epic are about - enough to get us into the auditorium, and put our lives right now in the context of history.

Next time, if anyone actually watches - or maybe if I fancy being a voice in the wilderness again, I'll talk about Aristotle and Habermas. Or make more jokes about jism. I might even actually see the shows and give you the consumer guide you really want.



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