Interview: The Oxford Greek Play

Ex-Theatre Editor KIERAN CORCORAN summons up his old enthusiasm to interview the folks behind this year’s Oxford Greek Play, ‘Clytemnestra’.

agamemnon butoh classical greek clowning clytemnestra electra foreign language greek greek drama greek tragedy interview kieran corcoran noh theatre orestes Oxford oxford drama raymond blankenhorn student drama The Other Place Theatre tragedy

I hate pinning my colours to the mast like this (I hate it even more when other people do it), but Agamemnon, last year’s Cambridge Greek Play, was easily the best thing I’ve seen in Cambridge, or indeed expect to see again. Soz guys.

For your fix of Greek plays you have to head to (whisper it) The Other Place. Turns out Oxford porters are suspicious of Cambridge journalists, but I managed to sneak into a cosy nook of Balliol and spend an hour with director Raymond Blankenhorn and lead actress Lucy Jackson, head honchos at this year’s Greek Play; Clytemnestra.

“The reason we chose Clytemenstra (more usually called The Libation Bearers),” Raymond says, “is partly to draw out the symmetry with Agamemnon.

“In both those plays the main characters are on stage for a limited amount of time. They’re small in terms of text time, but they pervade the whole play – its about their death and their fall.”

Publicity image for Clytemnestra

A quick, blunt point: the damn thing’s in Greek, and this presents problems for pretty much anyone who isn’t the head of a Classics faculty. So how do these guys deal with the hugely ambitious task of taking on an ancient-language production as students and amateurs?

“The whole production is in a way on the cusp in terms of student-professional,” says Raymond, “but I think it’s quite important that it comes essentially from volunteers. It’s a labour of love to do an ancient play in an ancient language.”

“The auditions were quite fun because we did them in English and in Greek; and we asked people if they spoke another language other than English but didn’t necessarily know Greek; and could they do a monologue in that language? We had things in German and French and Spanish, and some people who auditioned only in English, and we cast them anyway.”

Lucy pitches in: “It’s still been a challenge going through the lines and going ‘where does taking a pause actually make sense – and when am I violating some kind of Greek rhythm?’ But more than that is the sound of the words and fitting the sounds of the words to what I’m saying that has been a more important thing, and I think it has to be if you’re acting.”

But English-Greek isn’t the only culture-hopping the Greek play troupe are undertaking, and in some ways the second strand is even more ambitious.

“A big part of the show is inspired by Japan,” says Raymond, “but although it’s taking cues visually and stylistically, we’re not, as it were, setting it in Japan or making any statements about Japanese theatre being like Greek theatre, or Japanese culture being like Greek culture.

“The chorus’s costume and style are also taken from Japan, from Butoh, which is a kind of post-modern clowning. I think in a way it’s quite like the traditional Japanese Noh theatre in that there’s a principle that ‘if you feel 10, move 7’. So, there’s this kind of hypercontrolled gesture where you’re either very still or suddenly springing into action and then becoming still again.”

It’s the kind of overstuffed inventiveness that student theatre should have coming out of its ears. In fact it feels even more prevalent here than the professionally-directed and semi-professionally acted Cambridge Greek Play.

I start to wish to myself that these things come more than once every three years; but then I realise that the time-factor and expectation might be exactly what keeps them so sharp and special. It takes a lot to tempt me to The Other Place.

Clytemnestra, the 2011 Oxford Greek Play, is showing at the Oxford Playhouse 16th-19th November. Click here for more information.