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The goings-on of this weekend:

Friday evening began with frantic text messages between myself, on a train home from work, and my mother, who was in my flat waiting for the two of us to go off to Abingdon and see James Bowman performing in a concert at the school of St. Helen's and St. Katherine's. Like all trains back from Warwick, it was late and packed, and I was standing in the aisle, exhausted after my week's work and deperately reading the Penguin translation of Euripides' Orestes in preparation for the following night. Eventually I was able to say with reasonable certainty that I would be back by 6, allowing us precisely half an hour before setting off for the concert. To which she replied "Give me five minutes' notice, and I will heat up the soup." A delicious homemade dolcelatte and courgette soup, this was, I should explain. She also had melba toast, goat's cheese (actually bought by me, but let's not quibble), mango and raspberries waiting for me when I finally got in. I love my Mum.

We made it to the concert just in time, and a good thing too, as it was excellent. There were actually three separate artistes or groups of artistes who had come together to perform: James Bowman himself, a professional chamber orchestra and choir called Fiori Musicali, and the Cantores Choir, made up of girls from the school itself. These girls were not to be sneezed at, either - the school clearly put great stock on training them to sing to a high standard, and four of them had in fact taken part in a masterclass with James Bowman earlier that day. The title work for the evening was thus highly appropriate: Vivaldi's Gloria, originally written for the residents in an all-female orphanage, likewise widely admired for their musical abilities. It, like all the evening's programme, was astonishingly beautiful, and featured not only Mr. Bowman's considerable talents, but also solos by three of the girls from the choir. One was rather too crippled by nerves to let her otherwise beautiful voice enjoy its fullest expression, but that's excusable when you're all of sixteen, and all three were clearly extremely gifted.

The concert was not all, either. We also enjoyed a Mystery Art Market, where you could buy works for £15 each, with the thrill of knowing that some were by established professional artists - but not knowing which until after you'd bought your piece, a raffle, and a delicious late supper after the music had finished. James Bowman was hanging around chatting afterwards, so I did the fangirl thing and came away with this:

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Saturday day-time mainly involved sawing down a tree. A crab-apple tree to be precise, which I never wanted, and which has been blocking out my light and encroaching on one of our parking spaces for far too long. Sawing down a tree - even one whose trunk was only about 6 inches thick - actually turned out to be bloody hard work. Several long rests had to be taken in between removing sections of it, while my arms are now covered in hideous scratches from the brambles which had been growing through it. But we did it, and the thing is No More. We also generally tidied and planted nice things, before enjoying a hearty lunch of venison burgers with two different kinds of chutney.

After lunch, Mum departed, and I showered off the sweat, mud and blood from the gardening, in readiness for:

Saturday evening. This was all about the Oxford Greek Play - the reason why I had been reading Euripides' Orestes on the train the day before. I'd been to one in 1999 - Iphigeneia in Aulis - and had been really bowled over not only by the quality of the production, but of course also by my first ever experience of hearing a play performed in ancient Greek. This was to be my second, so I had high expectations: but they were not disappointed.

The Oxford Greek Plays are traditionally student productions, and we verified from swisstone's programme in the pub afterwards that the personnel was indeed almost 100% student-based. As far as we could spot, only the lighting director and co-executive producer had a professional background. This being the case, you might expect an amateur edge to the production, and, yes, perhaps there was some acting that could have been improved upon. But in general, this was a really memorable performance, which a professional cast and crew would not be ashamed of.

The set was visible as we took our seats, and consisted of three sets of steps and a doorway: all plausibly archaic-looking, without being architecturally specific enough to bring out the pedants. They also had a definite a ruinous air: perhaps to remind us of the unbridgeable gulf between ourselves and the past by evoking archaeological remains; perhaps to convey the crumbling state of the house of the Atreides, Orestes' family. In keeping with the tragic device of a unity of place, this was the sole setting for the entire play, and I felt it was very well used.

Electra and Orestes, too, were already on-stage at the start, she nursing him as he slept, exhausted from the madness which had descended when he killed his mother. They both proved to be extremely compentent actors as the performance progressed, although I felt that the young man playing Orestes had a slightly greater ranger than Electra. He could be sometimes frighteningly cold and resolved in his madness, sometimes foaming and jerking with an irrational drive, but she, although very good at hysteria, might perhaps have varied the level of it just a little more.

The chorus, all women, were for spidrak the highlight of the production, and I could well understand his point. Although one or two moved with less fluidity than the others or spoke their lines with a lesser confidence, as a group they were well-timed, well-choreographed, effectively costumed, and generally did a captivating job of bringing the rhythmic language of their verses to life. As they half-sang, half-chanted, an impressively physical performance reinforced their words, as they became at one moment the Furies, at another, frightened servants, and another, murderous avengers. I remember the chorus as being one of the most striking aspects of the previous Oxford Greek Play I attended, and I'd say this lot outdid it.

The other characters were generally effectively portrayed, and the language well-delivered apart from a couple of fluffed or missed lines. More could have been done with Helen, I felt, especially considering the need for the audience's sympathies to be directed towards her early on, so that they feel the appropriate shock and horror when Pylades and Orestes decide to kill her. And I must confess to being deeply disppointed with Apollo at the end. libellum argued that his delivery was intended to be flat and toneless, to help draw attention to the ludicrous nature of the deus ex machina ending. While this does indeed seem to have been Euripides' intention as playwright, and I admire her position as devil's advocate, I'm afraid I was inclined to place poor acting and a less-than-complete grasp of Greek higher on my list of likely suspects. Also, although on paper the chap playing him should have been good-looking (long, curly blond hair, toned and muscular physique), somehow the whole was less than the sum of its parts, while his forehead was definitely too prominent. As father of the Muses, Apollo deserves to be better portrayed on stage.

Those are my criticisms, though. On the other hand, we were treated to a genuinely fresh and exciting Trojan servant, who really livened up the play in its later moments, a strong Menelaus and an appropriately frenetic Pylades (if perhaps a little given to hamming it up when he heard that Orestes and Electra had been sentenced to death). There was also one stunning moment when Orestes, seeking to persuade Menelaus to help him escape the wrath of the Argive citizens, actually got down on one knee and took up the classical Greek attitude of supplication: one hand holding Menelaus' leg and one touching his beard. This is a gesture depicted on numerous Greek vases (although none I can find pictures of online), and so perfectly did the two actors imitate it, that for a moment it almost seemed as though as I was looking at a vase painting come to life - and, finally, I understood how that gesture really could work as a pleading pose, rather than just seeming weird and awkward.

All in all, then, catharsis was achieved, sympathies evoked, questions raised and a fine spectacle enjoyed. And oh! that language... I freely admit to being pants at ancient Greek, so it was a question of picking out key words like dómos, mêtrophontes or my fave ancient Greek word ever, ho legómenos, for me1. But that didn't stop my appreciation of the rhythmical structures of the text, nor indeed a sort of parallel appreciation of the much-abbreviated surtitles, which caused the odd m15m-style giggle in their own right from time to time ("Let's kill Helen!"). As, for that matter, did the text of the Gloria in the programme from Friday evening, with its reference to "Angus Dei" - literally, 'the steakhouse of God'.

The evening ended in Far From the Madding Crowd, where theatregoers and LARPers converged, and much enjoyable and occasionally surreal conversation followed. Hurrah for Culcha (innit) and interesting people.

Edited 25/10/05 to add: swisstone's review of the same performance may now be found here, and libellum's here

1. Yeah, I'm aware that it's possible to get LJ to display the actual Greek alphabet. But I really am astonishingly tired, so think I'll save learning about that for some other time...


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 16th, 2005 09:53 pm (UTC)
I'm afraid I was inclined to place poor acting and a less-than-complete grasp of Greek higher on my list of likely suspects

I don't think the latter is likely - according to the programme he has won prizes for Greek declamation, and he was the dialogue coach for the rest of the cast.
Oct. 17th, 2005 09:08 am (UTC)
Well, I'd love to know what he thought he was up to, then. I would have imagied Apollo's voice should be powerful and commanding, not dull and apologetic, as his sounded. Mind you, judging from the cast information on the official web-site, he is one of the few who's a classicist first, rather than a drama student first. So perhaps it is simply that he doesn't have much acting experience.
Oct. 17th, 2005 07:51 am (UTC)
Yay for Bunty! I trust he was in his usual ebullient form? I once shared a pizza with him; he's a very nice man (provided you don't disturb him when he's busy).
Oct. 17th, 2005 09:09 am (UTC)
Oh, yes - he looked like he was having the time of his life. Mouthing along to the bits of the Gloria he wasn't actually singing in, engaging enthusiastically with the other musicians / singers, and laughing and joking with friends afterwards.
Oct. 17th, 2005 10:40 am (UTC)
That was definitely the weekend of a Renaissance woman.
Oct. 17th, 2005 10:51 am (UTC)
Thanks - though I'm not sure Renaissance women did much in the sawing-down-trees arena... :)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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