Preview: The Furies by Aeschylus

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It’s not often that when going to see a piece of theatre my main concern is simply if I will understand what the cast are saying. However, given my Latin and Greek is not so much ‘little and less’ as ‘none and none at all,’ in anticipation of previewing the Oxford University Classical Drama Society’s production of The Furies, performed entirely in the original Greek, I’m more than a little nervous.

Luckily, when I arrive I’m furnished with a script showing the text in both English and transliterated Greek. In the actual performances, this will be made even easier by the surtitles to be projected above the stage, so that non-classicists like me can follow along without missing out on any of the action onstage. Though grateful for the translation, what surprised me was how little I needed it.

I found myself drawn away from the text, enthralled in the actors’ use of movement, the power of their delivery of the lines, and the compelling use of song and different registers of speech. Although knowing what was being said enriched the experience immeasurably, it is a testament to the skill of everyone involved that even without the script at hand, it would have been possible to get a sense of what was happening, and to enjoy the drama as a visual and auditory spectacle.

Chatting with the cast, director, and production team gives me some insight into how this remarkable and atmospheric interpretation of Aeschylus’s play was developed. My script has a reproduction of Francis Bacon’s crucifixion triptych on the front, and director Arabella Currie cites the British painter as a big influence on the production, which treats Aeschylus himself as a painter or musician, using textures, circles and lines, pace and rhythm, to explore untapped possibilities of the play.

Given the visceral, violent imagery of the body running through the language of the play, Bacon is a fitting reference point. His influence can already be seem in the cast’s use of stylised, contorted movement even without the set and costumes, which will display further Baconian influences.

The physicalities of the different characters are striking, particularly the way in which the Furies themselves are clearly one entity despite only rarely moving in unison. The cast tell me that they studied clips from nature documentaries as inspiration for their ways of moving, particularly predator and prey interactions – a clever way of conveying the primal vengefulness of the Furies in a play that deals in part with the role of revenge within civilisation.

The actors relearned the art of movement, stripping away their individual habits to begin afresh to move as characters with varying degrees of humanity, from Orestes, a mortal, to gods, goddesses, and the Furies themselves.

Though the play is performed in the original, a very rare occurrence in modern productions, the team stress that what this isn’t going to be is any attempt at reproducing the performance conditions of Greek drama, and there are some elements of it, for example, the chorus speaking and moving together, which they intentionally moved away from, in favour of introducing more innovative and radical devices, such as a musical ensemble whose contributions to the piece will be semi-improvised, allowing them to interact with the acting ensemble in real time, becoming part of the psychological world of the drama.

Only about half of the cast are classicists, the rest studying a range of subjects including Medicine, Music, and English, with varying levels of Ancient Greek, some speaking none at all prior to being cast in the play. Despite this, I couldn’t have begun to pick out the non-classicists in the ensemble, and I’m surprised to learn that Jack Taylor, who takes the role of Apollo, speaks no Greek at all, despite his compelling performance.

The cast attribute their easy handling of an unfamiliar tongue to the support they’ve received from the classicists working with them, and the relationships they have built with the rest of the team over the three weeks they have been rehearsing together. Given the cast don’t have time to learn the meaning of everyone’s lines, it is extra important that they convey the meaning of their lines through tone and gesture, so the other actors can understand them, and react to what they are saying.

On the surface, the idea of a Greek play might seem like a purely academic exercise, lacking in broader public appeal. However, not only does this production promise to present a compelling interpretation of a classic for those both familiar and unfamiliar with its language, it also pushes the boundaries of speech, language, movement, and sound in ways most productions in English would simply not think to attempt. The Furies is essential viewing not only for those in relevant academic disciplines, but for anyone who loves theatre, and new theatrical experiences.

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