Monday, 29 March 2021

Out of Chaos: Reading Greek Tragedy Online

by Paul O'Mahony

I’ve worked in theatre for 18 years - as an actor, writer, producer and director. My theatre company Out of Chaos has toured throughout the UK, Europe, USA and New Zealand, winning several awards along the way. Many of our shows have been inspired by Greek and Roman literature, including Out of Chaos, Unmythable and the upcoming Crossing the Sea.

When the world went into (its first) lockdown in March last year, I contacted Lanah Koelle at The Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC to propose a collaboration: we would live stream scenes from different Greek tragedies, with analysis provided by academics associated with the CHS. My intention was to create a community at a time when we were all separated, and to explore these stories for what they might reveal about our current situation. Lanah was immediately enthusiastic; she told me Joel Christensen from Brandeis University had also been in touch about arranging an online group and we decided to meet via zoom on Tuesday 24th March. After working out some (very) rough details we reconvened 24 hours later for our first reading, Euripides’ Helen. We all enjoyed it immensely, and after that we resolved to live stream an episode every Wednesday for the rest of the year. We ended with 41 episodes including all extant tragedies, a few comedies and episodes on the Iliad and Odyssey (plus a 24-hour reading of the whole poem). Each episode of Reading Greek Tragedy Online is 90 minutes long, containing approximately 45 minutes’ worth of scenes and a further 45 minutes of discussion led by Joel and different guest academics.

Throughout the course of the year, the project gained momentum with increasing numbers of artists from around the world involved. We were able to call upon brilliant performers, and we became more and more ambitious with our stagings - we had a Cyclops rock opera, a 25-strong puppet Frogs chorus, and an incredible performance of Oliver Taplin’s translation of the Oresteia across three consecutive weeks. One of our most frequent collaborators, Tabatha Gayle, coined the term zoomcraft to describe what we were doing – in essence, taking whatever we could find at home and turning it into the stage we used each week. We played with lighting effects (it’s amazing what you can do with a cheap ring light), camera angles, some limited costume choices. Each week actors made bold, informed, inspired choices to bring their characters to life.

We received appreciative messages from audiences across the world, and inspired play reading groups as far apart as Wyoming and Brasilia. We launched an outreach competiton called Playing Medea, inviting US and Canadian students to film scenes from Medea. This proved very successful and, with generous financial support from the Classical Association, we launched the UK Playing Medea at the end of last year. Full details are on the Out of Chaos website.

This year the live streams are switching to a monthly schedule and we’re broadening our scope. We’re performing Thyestes, the Argonautica and the Iliad (again), and exploring reception from the 17th Century to the modern day.

The series has led to numerous exciting collaborations (not least a new Greek Theatre course developed with the British American Drama Academy), and demonstrated the power of performance as a shared experience. We have plans to work together as an ensemble when circumstances allow, and we’re in the process of planning new ways of sharing our work online, including masterclasses and workshops. All episodes will remain online as a free resource.

All episodes can be found here:

And here:

Playing Medea UK competition:

And here’s a new course that has been inspired by the series:

Paul O'Mahony is Artistic Director of Out of Chaos theatre company.

You can find out more about Out of Chaos on 7 April 2021 during the CA's free online conference, where it will feature in a session on Greek theatre online, an evening of classics-inspired theatre followed by a Q&A chaired by Professor James Robson:




Friday, 19 February 2021

Spring Books 2021

 by Philip Hooker

Once again, I have surveyed the Bookseller’s Buyers Guide to find some forthcoming books on classical themes which publishers believe will be of interest to the general reader – and have also called in some more from elsewhere.

I start with works from leading classical scholars. Judith M Barringer’s Olympia: A Cultural History is a splendid survey of the games, the monuments, the oracle, from 600 BC all the way to the late Roman Empire. Anthony Barrett’s Rome is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty examines Nero’s role in the great fire of 64 AD; he reckons that he took sensible steps to prevent the fire from spreading, but 15-20% of the city was razed to the ground including many noble houses; when their owners were hard hit by tax increases for the rebuilding, they spun stories about Nero’s iniquity, what might today be called fake news. This is complemented by Thorsten Opper’s Nero which accompanies a new British Museum exhibition with 200 objects, due from May to October. Michael Fulford’s Silchester Revealed presents a full description of the Iron Age and Roman town of Calleva, based on decades of archaeological research.

We have two major feats of reception study. Simon Goldhill’s Preposterous Poetics: The Politics and Aesthetics of Form in Late Antiquity asks how does literary form change as Christianity and rabbinic Judaism take shape? This is, one reviewer opined, “a playful book”. Meanwhile, Edmund Richardson offers Alexandria: The Quest for a Lost City – a wild journey through 19th century India and Afghanistan, featuring Charles Masson, a spy extraordinaire and master of a hundred disguises, who discovered a city in Afghanistan in 1833. This is a follow-up to his Classical Victorians: Scholars, Scoundrels and Generals in Pursuit of Antiquity, published in 2013.

We also have several works from professional writers. David Stuttard has Phoenix: A Father, A Son, and the Rise of Athens, a novelistic history of Athens by way of the lives of Miltiades and Cimon.   Jeffrey Smith has Themistocles: The Powerbroker of Athens. Philip Matyszak offers A Year in the Life of Ancient Greece: The Real Lives of the People who Lived There – 248BC, an Olympic Year as seen by assorted characters in the Hellenistic World. Alberto Angela, an Italian journalist and TV host, has his 2018 Cleopatra: The Queen who Challenged Rome and Conquered Eternity now in translation; he has, more recently, published the first part of a trilogy on Nero and the fire of Rome. In lighter vein, Philip Womack has How to Teach Classics to Your Dog: A Quirky Introduction to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. “You’d be barking to miss it” declares Michael Scott.

On the fiction front Lindsey DavisA Comedy of Terrors is the ninth Flavia Alba story featuring the Saturnalia, a possible Nut War and threats to Domitian; we also have the latest works from Conn Iggulden (with an Athenian series) and Simon Turney (Rise of Emperors series, with Gordon Doherty).    Slightly Foxed Books are reprinting all of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Roman Britain series for younger readers, starting with The Eagle of the Ninth.

Notable translations include Vergil’s Aeneid, a revision by Susanna Braund of Sarah Ruden’s 2008 version (line by line in iambic pentameters), an Oxford World Classics edition of Epigrams from the Greek Anthology by Gideon Nesbit and two more of the Princeton series with jolly titles – Cicero’s How to Tell A Joke (based on the Ideal Orator, with additional material from Quintilian) by Michael Fontaine and Sextus Empiricus How to Keep an Open Mind by Richard Bett. Kae Tempest’s version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, which is still a planned National Theatre production with Lesley Manville in the lead role and a large all-female cast, should have its text published. The latest Cambridge Green and Yellow is Cicero’s Pro Milone by Thomas J Keeline; the latest Loebs are Petronius’ Satyricon by Gareth Schmeling, Galen’s On Temperaments by Ian Johnston and Livy volume 7 (Books 26-27) by J C Yardley. Douglas Olson has a new Aristophanes commentary – the Clouds, the first major one since Dover.

And then. on March 31st, so Amazon tells us, we should see the long-awaited Cambridge Greek Lexicon, edited by James Diggle and others, rebased on first principles with a study of original texts, in two volumes, part-funded by The Classical Association, one of the great scholarly achievements of our time.

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