“The most important decision taken was that a portion of points would be awarded for how each show represented the style of the producing society.”
They never had anything like this in my day. As EUSA’s last non-sabbatical Societies Convenor I would loudly lament the lack of inter-Society activities. I didn’t do anything about it, that’s not the point of student politics, but I did passionately (and lengthily) express my views at SRC meetings.
“Don’t worry about it Dan,” replied my colleagues. “Next year some guys at Harvard are going to invent a thing called ‘social media’ and when that comes online it’ll be easy for students from across the university to come together and make magic happen.”
The first Dionysia Festival held, as part of Innovative Learning Week (they didn’t have that in my day either), at Bedlam brought together four student societies in a friendly competition. Inspired by the Athenian original, Bedlam’s Dionysia focused a wealth of creative effort on new writing, innovative staging and classical and contemporary interpretations of ancient dramas.
At 1pm archons and epimeletai from each of the competing societies, as well as two outside judges (yours truly among them), gathered in the cafe at Bedlam to set the ground rules. The most important decision taken was that a portion of points would be awarded for how each show represented the style of the producing society.
When the uninitiated attend Freshers’ Fairs they are presented with a flow chart to identify the raison d’etre of the various dramatic groups at Edinburgh. If you want to put on a puppet show – and have some experience – go to the University Theatre Society (Bedlam). If you want to put on a puppet show about Oedipus – go to Classics. If you’ve never put on a puppet show before but want to try – go to Relief. If you want to put on a puppet show as you throw ducks off a rooftop, whilst covered in white paint, rolling around on the floor and crying – go to Paradok.
Hats off to the day’s agonothetai, the game organizers. James Beagon, Rachel Bussom and Sophie Harris delivered a brilliant lineup showcasing the University’s established and emerging thespian, technical, artistic and musical talent.
Bedlam kicked off proceedings with a new script inspired by the part of King Creon in Sophocles’s Antigone. An isolated, hesitant ruler presides over an apocalyptic landscape devastated by a civil war in which the fallout from WMD has literally and figuratively disfigured the country.
Creon’s niece, Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus by his own mother Jocasta, is betrothed to Creon’s son Haemon. In order to ensure her warring brothers a proper burial, Antigone defies the prohibition against entering the fallout zone. Creon is faced with a dilemma that will test his leadership to breaking point.
First time writer Thomas Ware’s bold script demonstrates a wealth of subtle insight and profound musing on the original. The architecture is monumental but the necessary engineering is absent. In parts the weight presses down on the actors and it isn’t long before cracks begin emerging. There is little let up for Matthias Vollhardt as Creon as he shifts back and forth between intimate family moments and the hard-headed affairs of state. He seems to have fun shouting “Hail Thebes!” though.
Greek tragedy is underpinned by the notion that from small things come great and tragic things. Ware takes the opposite approach and, like a pyramid build upside down, it is only a matter of time before the tipping point.
There are minor issues: why is there an Archbishop in a polytheistic society? Is a city-state big enough to have a nuclear civil war? Why does Vollhardt wear his totalitarian armband on the right arm when others wear it on the left? Why is the recorded voice of one character performed by a different actor from the one on stage? Why hasn’t the chorus been given a device to cover her verbatim reading of her lines? Why does Chancellor Creon use his mobile phone to make an ever-so secret plan?
But there is a deeper question, and it isn’t that perennial A-Level exam essay: ‘Should Antigone be titled Creon?’ The script sails into murky waters in its treatment of Antigone. Ware presents her as deserving to be punished, wanting to be punished, it’s all her fault. Beagon and I both found something fascinating about our shoelaces as our fellow judges vented their annoyance. But then fleets of more experienced writers have also broken on the rocks of Athenian misogyny.
The Eumenides, performed by The Classical Society, followed the pursuit of Orestes by the vengeful Furies, avengers of matricides and patricides. Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra for having murdered his father Agamemnon. Although he did so with the blessing of Apollo, the Furies hunt him down to a shrine of Athena. The great goddess presides over a trial at which the argument is put forward that in marriage men are more important that women. Having been immaculately conceived without a mother, exploding from the head of Zeus, Athena is open to this line of argument.
This is a big performance with the tone being set early on by a delphic Christina M. Intrator as Apollo’s oracle. The contrast with what preceded is rather like stepping back from an Adam Elsheimer canvas to discover it’s been hung on Mount Rushmore. The dust is shaken up by a trio troupe of drummers who drive pace into the heart of everything happening on stage.
The Furies (Tamsyn Lonsdale-Smith, Susan Kidd and Tara McKeaney) are fearsome, I’m shaking, my teeth are chattering and not just because of Bedlam’s supernatural ability to be colder inside than it is on the street. They weren’t totally in sync but this adds to the terrifying sense that three individuals are totally combined to one end. What they were was what William-Adolphe Bouguereau was driving at.
Frances Heatherington made up for a slightly grating lack of other props and theatrical formatting with a set of artistic, artful masks. I distrust masks. In the wrong hands they become a substitute for acting rather than a flavour enhancer. Not so here. They are simply wonderful and wonderfully deployed: enigmatic while engaging so as to highlight a script rainbowed with shades of grey.
Mia Allen and Tab Machin presented a swirling medley of script and sound, painted with an infinite lightness of touch. Strong performances by Ella Atterton and Eleanor Affleck completed a hard working, effective ensemble.
Paradok’s take on Medea, the story of a jilted wife’s refusal to play the victim, was most ambitious. There was much more acting, accents, set, costumes and even puppetry. There was also more formatting and features, some more necessary and accomplished than others.
The most successful of all was the chorus, three tightly choreographed figures shimmering in and out of the action. In white face paint (the Paradok signature) and white suits they were everything a dyed-in-the-wool Classicist could desire. Incidentally, Paradok founder Anya Bowman went on to found that insightful compendium of ancient wisdom for modern minds ClassicalWisdom.com.
From the start it was a Goldilocks ensemble, cast across a spectrum of dramatic impact. Joanna Pidcock as the nurse skirts the outer edges of Father Ted’s Mrs. Doyle. In a less straight-laced production something could have been made of that.
Similarly, Isabel Palmstierna as Medea, sounds out the pitch black comic possibilities – for the first time watching this play I am made to fully understand why men are fascinated by Medea’s mind as well as her ferocious, biting wit. Regrettably, this potential went untapped. The line between tragedy and comedy was fussily preserved.
After a strong start Olivier Huband’s momentum as Jason was soon spent. No less so than Medea, Jason is a part offering limitless avenues of interpretation. Huband played it safe. He portrayed neither a sensualist, opportunist, honest fool, malign social climber, nor a moral coward. If stage presence was all that was needed he’d have delivered the goods. He wasn’t bowled out by Palmstierna but neither did he find his sweet spot as she sent challenging pitch after challenging pitch hurtling towards the crease.
This was a production plagued with technical difficulties. The projector didn’t work (and when it finally did I wished it hadn’t). There were lighting failures, missed lines and what is worse an over-enthusiastic prompt.
But the positives outweighed the negatives. With more rehearsals and closer attention to the possibilities of the script, this production would have swung through the nervous nineties and scored a century.
Keep It Up Sisyphus! was a much needed break in the tension. This comic concoction chronicled the misadventures of a London wide-boy, who might have been the love child of Del Trotter and Harry Lime. It was set in an Allo! Allo! period French bar owned by Sisyphus’ long-suffering fiancee.
If not exactly a Classical script as such, James W. Woë and Andrew Blair’s play was a vehicle for creative minds doing what they do best. David Bard in the title role romped about the place, not letting the war get under his skin and keeping his masses of hair on. Carrying no small amount of sparkle himself, he also Seinfelded the situation so as to allow his fellow players to shine out too.
Rebecca Speedie as his laconic better half, with Nuri Corser and Imy Wyatt Corner as the resistance fighters, managed to set the scene and hold it under an onslaught of pacy absurdity. The set was perfect and perfectly used. A bar, a table, some chairs and a curtain – simple but effective.
Someone once described Rory Kelly as the Robbie Coltrane of our time, and they were right. As Greek Chorus he delivered an Izzard-esque stream of absurdity in a flat, deadpan that had the audience howling with laughter. Like one of those new compact deodorant bottles, Eric Geistfeld, as the villainous General Nichteinnettermann, squeezed every cubic centimetre of funny from The Producers into his short, snappy scenes.
It takes discipline to be this off beat, rehearsal to be this spontaneous and trust to be this individual.
I had a few minor gripes: would it have killed them to put some cold tea in the Jack Daniels bottle and couldn’t Sisyphus have tied his boot laces for a trek across Europe rather than a night on the tiles? But this was a show that knew what it was about, even if it wasn’t exactly about classical Greek theatre.
This was the first Dionysia Festival, organised as a platform to showcase the multifaceted talents of the student body. Funding was provided by Innovative Learning Week, but the true value was seeing just how bright are the bright young things from whom we can expect more fine work in the not-too-distant future.
Best Techie – Marina Johnson (Kreon)
Best Actor – Eric Geistfeld (Sisyphus)
Best Actress – Isabel Palmstierna (Medea)
Best Chorus Leader – Tamsyn Lonsdale-Smith (The Eumenides)
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 20 February)
Visit The Dionysia homepage here.