To kick off its Live Friday programme marking its 330th anniversary the Ashmolean was transformed into a festival of light, music, dance and drama. The majesty of the museum’s exterior was all aglow, and the sight alone of the busy queue outside was enough to excite me. Inside, it was a hive of activity, and the buzzing throngs were the densest crowds I have ever seen at a museum.
My first port of call was Hades, where shades, chanting, staring, and crouched on tables, made a good attempt at convincing us that we were in the eerie Underworld – a feat which I imagine must be hard to pull off in a friendly café. The Latin Play (excerpts from Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus) which I saw next was brilliantly funny and vibrantly-costumed, and although mishaps with the subtitles – which were not addressed quickly enough to stop half a row of people leaving in the middle of the play – do not help to promote Classics to an audience who are not all Literae Humaniores students, the Latin was spoken with character and clarity – with the exception of some Italianized Latin, which sounded so fluent that whether I understood any of it really didn’t matter anymore.
Overall, the structure of the evening’s programme scores top marks. My tickets for the two priced events of the night were timed generously apart so that I just caught the end of the Roman Pantomime and the start of the Persian Language Workshop – just to check whether my Persian-loving tutor was starring there – before heading to the operetta. Wandering around for the hour in between, I could see people wearing plumed helmets, trying on togas, playing what looked like ancient backgammon; no lack of things to do.
But like all sweet things, the evening did have a more sickly side. The problem was not so much the “Carry on Classics” vibe, but if you’re going to “carry on”, you might as well carry on all the way. The only heroes I saw in “Elysium” (the 4th floor bar) were two people wearing laurel wreaths. And the “atrium” in which the Greek dancing was performed turned out to be in a secluded corner of the otherwise open-planned building, depriving all the people who lined up along the banisters, overlooking the actual atrium, of a proper view. While it would not have been wise to topple the monumental statue of Apollo at the centre of the atrium, the graceful swirling of dancers can hardly have caused more damage than the strangely – advertised “Fight with the Gods” in the cast gallery.
When manoeuvring through the masses got tiresome, I took a moment to appreciate the museum’s collection, and found it rather comforting to see groups of people other than school children or tours doing the same; indeed, where better to mingle or rest your (as Homer says) “weakened knees” than beside 3,000 year old pottery?
Finally, the operetta The Judgement of Paris ended my evening in style, set in an elegant portrait room on the 2nd floor, tucked away from the main hub of action, with a grand staircase of its own. The music was heavenly and the singing of Venus particularly mellifluous. Whoever designated the 4 th floor as “Olympus” should have had a rethink.
All in all, it was a worthwhile evening considering that it was free, but it was the priced events that made it truly divine. After all, gods don’t make an appearance for nothing!