Why the Almeida’s ‘getting the Greeks out of the attic’

Oresteia at the Almeida. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Oresteia at the Almeida. Picture: Manuel Harlan - Credit: Archant

They’re the cradle of western drama, and now the Almeida theatre is basing a whole season around the Greek classics, its artistic director tells Bridget Galton.

In the words of the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Goold “getting the Greeks out of the attic” isn’t just about reimagining the classics for a modern audience but to “reboot” the venue itself.

Not because the Islington powerhouse is actually stalled, but because a season that includes a drag act, a feminist choir, and Ben Whishaw as Dionysus is a statement of intent about where he wants to take the venue.

“All art forms have their starting points and clearly those Athenian plays were the start of drama.

“I am relatively new to the Almeida and it seemed timely to reboot the theatre by asking how did it all begin, why are these stories still relevant, still talked abut in criminal justice, psychoanalysis, soap opera, and what does it mean to live in one of the most diverse, intellectually engaged, culturally vibrant cities in the world to come together and watch stories and think about what they mean about the society and the self?”

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A festival of debates, DJ sets, talks and events takes place around three main productions, which kicked off last month with what one critic called a “daring and disquieting” modern dress Oresteia and continues with Whishaw in the Bakkhai and a Rachel Cusk translation of Medea.

A marathon reading of the Iliad, a version of Lysistrata by One Man Two Guvnors writer Richard Bean and a funky Midnight Run poetry walk make up a programme inspired by the frolicsome energy of the ancient festival of Dionysus.

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Goold, who says the classics have given him an ongoing understanding of how to make his own productions like Enron, Chimerica and Charles III feel mythic, wants to replicate the way these plays “pushed at the limits of what was acceptable in Athens”.

Cusk, for example, who has written provocatively about motherhood and divorce, seemed a good choice to translate Medea, who slays her children to punish her husband’s betrayal.

“Medea is about the demonization and domestic behaviour of a woman ostracised by her society. I am interested in what it means for a woman who finds herself in a similar position in contemporary society.”

Of Bean’s adaptation of Lysistrata he says: “There’s no point doing these comedies unless they are funny. His take will be provocative, and full of jokes.”

Asked whether the season is a bid to engage younger audiences with the Greeks, he says: “I don’t think the Greeks are any more off-putting to young people than theatre full stop,” adding “Young people are much more likely to be hostile to Rattigan than Euripides as long as the language is accessible.”

Ultimately Goold sees himself in a theatrical tradition dating back hundreds of years, of providing a damn good entertaining night out.

In his opinion, that involves putting characters through the mill, and with their tales of incest and eye -gouging, few can best The Greeks.

“Tragedy is probably the most mis-used word in journalism, it can describe a sporting disaster or a plane crash. But the idea of unleashing pity, awe and catharsis through suffering is really complicated. The spectacle of suffering has always existed since the hangings at Tyburn.

“We live in a relatively benign society and yet seeing plays that put people on the rack are important.

“People are after something where the emotional stakes are high, political and personal arguments are viscerally thrashed out and the narratives provocative. They want to go to the theatre to be wrung out and to feel something.”

The Almeida’s Greek Season runs until October 22. Visit almeida.co.uk

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