Monday, 20 March 2017

Lend an ear on the way through the forum ….

by George Sharpley (Latin teacher and author)

People who join the Latin Qvarter beginner courses are curious to discover how dead this language really is and to explore what they can of Latin (and English) grammar. They rightly expect a word feast, with lots of our own words with Latin roots pointing the way ... and I do my best to please. I also want give people a feel for what is easily lost in Latin’s centuries-old silent imprisonment in books and stone memorials: the language’s voice.

In its day, classical Latin was a language heard much more than read. Most people – even those taught to read – will have experienced the works of Virgil and Ovid read aloud. And if T.P.Wiseman’s excellent The Roman Audience (Oxford 2015) is anything to go by, this will not have been confined to private readings in rich people’s houses, but in public theatres too. And read – or performed – with facial expression, gesture and body movement.

Thus we need caution in our application of the oral-literary divide. We think of the Iliad and Odyssey as ‘oral’ epics, because they very nearly are. They are the closest we get to oral poems of that time; but they are in fact pioneering triumphs of a literate society, if drawing on an oral tradition from the world around them. And Virgil’s Aeneid, the fruit of a poetic culture at ease with scrolls of papyrus and the study of letters, is a good deal more aural/oral than we might think. In fact the idea among some scholars today that Roman literature started from cold in the 3rd century BC is a little misleading. It was already well warmed up by the previous and concurrent oral tradition of dramatised storytelling.

Dio Chrysostom (c. ad 40–115) shows us a poet and a storyteller at work. He describes a scene in the Hippodrome: “I remember seeing a number of people in one place, each one doing something different: one was playing a flute, another dancing, another juggling, another reading aloud a poem, another singing, and another telling a story or myth; and not a single one of them prevented any of the others carrying out his own business” (Discourses 20.10).

What makes a poet literary is not so much that he is read whereas a storyteller is heard, but his performance is recorded on papyrus, which is then used as a prompt for further recitals (as well as a text for admirers and teachers). The oral storyteller on the other hand is below radar; his work has not been preserved. Mind you, his popularity was not limited to ordinary folk: Suetonius tells us that Augustus would summon a story-teller at night if he could not sleep (Aug.78).

We think of the literati of Rome absorbing Hellenistic culture, and with it and through it the earlier classical Greek one. What we see much less in the surviving evidence is the influx of Greek culture into Italy at a broader more popular level, not least through the oral storytellers.

The tour of cathedrals in spring 2016, Latin in the Cloisters, was meant to evoke the part played by medieval cathedrals and monasteries in the teaching of Latin and in copying and preserving the great classical authors. And as it continues to roll forward into new cathedrals, Roman sites and museums in 2017, Latin beginners can expect more of the same, to learn the language through stories, historical and fabled; and to hear verses you might have paused to listen to on your way through the forum.

Latin for Beginners, a one-day course in 2017 (remaining dates):

25th March  PEMBROKESHIRE  (St Davids Cathedral)

22nd April  CHICHESTER  (Fishbourne Roman Villa)

29th April  CARDIFF  (Llandaff Cathedral)

18th October  EXETER  (Royal Albert Memorial Museum)

Details of these and other courses from The Latin Qvarter:

Friday, 17 March 2017

UK Stage and Screen 2017

by Philip Hooker 

It is now too late to catch The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, a rare revival of Tony Harrison’s version of Sophocles’ Ichneutae in the tiny Finborough Theatre, London (not much room for the clog dancing). But there will be fresh opportunities to catch the version of Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women, by David Greig, which was well-reviewed at Edinburgh and elsewhere last autumn. It comes to Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre from 10 March and to London’s Young Vic from 13 November; it has a topical theme and features a large community chorus.

Then, at London’s Jermyn Street theatre, we will have a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical version of Aristophanes’ Frogs from 14 March. This is not quite a UK premiere of this 1974 musical (there was a production at Brentford Baths in 1990), but it is the first professional UK production of the 2004 Broadway version revised by Nathan Lane, with Michael Matus and George Rae. Then we have Boudica at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre from 10 September, a new play by Tristan Bernays, directed by Eleanor Rhode, which promises to be both feminist and rowdy. At the turn of the year, in London, we can expect From Oedipus to Antigone, a modern version of Sophocles’ Theban Plays by South African director Yael Farber, the second production in a West End season arranged by Marianne Elliott. Meanwhile, at Northampton, from 16 June, there will be the European premiere of An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, based on the Robert Fagles translation, a one-man feat of storytelling, widely performed in the US, with added music from Orlando Gough.

The major UK theatrical venture is, of course, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Roman season, with main-house productions of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus and, in the Swan Theatre, a new play, Vice Versa, Phil Porter’s version of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus and others, plus Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. Productions will also be screened in cinemas worldwide – Julius Caesar on 26 April, Antony and Cleopatra on 24 May, Titus Andronicus on 9 August, and Coriolanus on 11 October – presumably with some encore screenings.

And the climax to the whole season, just confirmed, is Imperium, a two part adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy, each with three plays and two intervals, by Mike Poulton, directed by Greg Doran, starting in November in the Swan Theatre and running until the end of February. “Rome meets the West Wing”. Poulton previously adapted Wolf Hall in two parts for the RSC, which was a great success, transferring to London and New York. We can suppose that a London transfer is already pencilled in, if Imperium opens well at Stratford.

Among films due in 2017, a thorough survey reveals just one to report. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an art house film by Yorgos Lanthimos (best known for The Lobster), is a psychological thriller about a 12 year old boy who tries to integrate a Cincinnati surgeon into his dysfunctional family and stars Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. It is “inspired” by Euripides’ tragedy. And, on the smaller screen, we can expect Britannia, a major 10 part drama series by Jez Butterworth, all about the Roman invasion of Celtic Britannia in 43 AD, starring David Morrissey, Kelly Reilly and Zoe Wanamaker; this is a lavish co-production between Sky Television and Amazon, which should emerge in autumn 2017.

Philip Hooker is the Hon. Treasurer of the Classical Association, and writes regularly for the CA Blog on Classics in the Media.