Taking classics out of the classroom

Naomi Endicott reviews a student production of Euripides’ Hippolytus

Whenever companies put on plays dating from before about 1900, the buzzphrase “updated for a modern audience” instantly becomes ubiquitous.  But Greek tragedy hardly needs this.  After all, theatre aims to present you with the reality of the human condition, and how much has that changed over the last 2500 years?

The Classics department’s staging of Hippolytus, written by Euripides and first performed in 428 BCE, hammers this point home with a blaze of miscommunications, vengeance, sensuality, lust, betrayal, and forgiveness. Lynn Kozak, assistant professor in History and Classical Studies and organizer of the department’s now-annual play, spoke of how tragedy emphasizes “how out of control our lives are,” and evokes emotions that are viscerally real.

The protagonist, Hippolytus, is an overwhelmingly self-righteous virgin who refuses to worship the goddess of love, Kypris (also known as Aphrodite), instead devoting his worship to Artemis, goddess of chastity and hunting.  Kypris is so offended she takes revenge, making Hippolytus’ mother-in-law Phaedra fall in love with him.  Things take a turn for the tragic when Hippolytus’ father Theseus returns.  The human characters prove to be far more complex than the deities, managing to provoke both annoyance and sympathy from the audience.

While Phaedra agonises over her unrequited love and Hippolytus raves against the uselessness of women, the chorus offers its opinion on the unfolding events at every opportunity.  12 cast members scattered through the audience move about freely, dance sensuously, mourn, and rant as the occasion demands.  In the cavernous space of La Sala Rossa, with the audience scattered around tables, the effect was immersive and multisensory in a way theatre often doesn’t dare to be.

Adding to the sensory experience was the surprising and successful electronic soundtrack composed by Nick Donaldson, aka Virek, who graduated from McGill with an MA in Music Technology in 2011.  Heartbeats and horse hoofs mingled with ethereal synths – and a fair smattering of doom-laden bass – in a way that both blended into and enhanced the tension of the unfolding drama.  When asked why this genre should be chosen for the soundtrack, co-director Carina de Klerk explained, “Because it’s synthetic, and the restaging of classical plays is synthetic.” While “synthetic” is more commonly interpreted as “artificial,” in this sense, I’m more inclined to think of it in its second sense, as a combination: the mission to stay true to the text, paired with the realities of staging a play for a 21st century audience.

Speaking about the translation process, Elizabeth Ten-Hove – who played Hippolytus, and contributed to the translation – said, “It was a lot of fun! You’re always translating in class but it was really interesting to come together as a group and talk about the translation. It has to sound good in English. It’s not just about getting the right meaning, it’s the right shade of meaning.”  The task of translation was clearly not taken lightly, with contributions from eight students under the purview of de Klerk and Kozak.  While modernized, the resulting play flows smoothly: idiom was well integrated, and the chorus retained the sense of poetry – while avoiding any forced rhythm or rhyme – that set their interjections apart from the emotionally-charged dialogue and soliloquy of the principal characters.

Most would agree that ancient Greek is a dead language.  But its legacy is certainly living, and performances such as this one take that legacy out of the classroom – where, indeed, it is liable to remain trapped in an endless recitation of conjugations and declensions.  Kozak enthused that “performance makes [classical plays] real in a way that reading doesn’t, especially with translation, you get stuck in every word.”  For her, staging classical plays is essential to her project to “bring Classics to a wider audience.  I don’t like that Classics is just a niche thing.”  Only one third of the cast are “hardcore Classicists,” as Kozak described them.  Rather, many came to the play out of interest in the culture and in acting.

The overall response among the cast was that the whole thing was a lot of fun.  “We take the darkest parts of ourselves and bring them out for the world to see!” Thurber remarked, with a huge smile on her face that completely vanished when she took to the stage to pour out the doomed fate of Phaedra.