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The ‘Golden Nikes’ for Greek tragedy

With Greek tragedies filling major venues in London in recent months, I have been daydreaming about awarding my personal ancient Greek Oscars, to be called “Golden Nikes” (pedantic footnote: Nike was the Goddess of Victory, not of Trainers). There has been Medea at the National Theatre, Electra (Sophocles’ version) at the Old Vic, and Antigone, which recently opened at the Barbican. There are yet more productions lined up for The Globe, Donmar, and RSC.

Most obviously, there has to be the Golden Nike for ‘Best Tragic Heroine’. And it goes to Kristin Scott Thomas for her tense, nuanced, and moving Electra – although Helen McCrory’s Medea would win if there were an award for ‘Voice’. (I’m afraid that Juliette Binoche showed that she is better in the cinema than the theatre.) ‘Best Supporting Actor’ definitely goes to Diana Quick’s dignified but hopelessly damaged Clytemnestra in Electra.

In the long run, though, it may be more interesting to think about the huge differences between these three productions, and how each found such very different tensions and tones and thought-patterns in three plays that all come from the same society and setting and the same brief period in the Athens of nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea tapped into a dark undergrowth of resentment and deceit; Electra revolved around the pathology of grief and the cramping bonds of family ties; Antigone brought out the menace of power and the allure of death-wish. They were so fascinatingly varied in their incorporation of music, for example, their use or non-use of the chorus, their playing on light and dark, and the degree to which they were in some way “Greek”.

The Goddess Nike (Winged Victory) on top of Skipton War Memorial by Chris Tomlinson. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Naturally, as a translator, I have a special interest in their scripts – the degree of adaptation, their diction and poetry, their use of the familiar and the strange. You might say that they could hardly have been more different. Actually, the range of modern versions is so incredibly various that you could put another twenty versions side-by-side and find them no less different from each other than these three.

Ben Power’s Medea, called “a new version”, was the most adapted and furthest away from the Greek original. Critics praised it as “lean and mean”. This is one way of saying that only about a quarter of the Euripides made it into the version. And there is a significant layer of additions, including most of the opening scene. Power’s priorities are open: he is going for clear basic narrative, simple accessible language. His driving priorities might be put as negatives: “avoid making it difficult or strange or high-flown”. Complex ideas, striking twists of expression, musical sound-patterns: these are all avoided like the plague in this simplified version.

Electra used a pre-existent text by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. This is relatively complete and close to the original, and does more to reflect the non-naturalistic dictions and rhythms of Sophocles. The word most used of it by reviewers was “strong”. This is high praise – I would be delighted if my versions were called “strong”. At the same time McGuinness’ language did not surprise or disconcert; it felt well worn rather than fresh.

Anne Carson is the only one of three writers to have worked from the Greek, and so it is all the more remarkable that her Antigone is by far the strangest and most idiosyncratic. Carson is both a classical scholar and an exceptional lyric poet. Her own poetry has an unmistakable “voice” – a poignant terseness, a sardonic wit, and an unpredictable swooping between highly wrought artifice and almost bathetically everyday idioms. She has not changed her voice at all for confronting tragedy, and the result is that this new Antigone has a script that is full of strange surprises and puzzling twists, darting between high peculiarity and deflationary colloquialism. This is not merely willful because the Sophocles original is also variable and unexpected in tonal variation; it is quite mistaken to think that the language of Greek tragedy was level and stately.

At the same time, I have to say that the Carson is so odd and individual that, in my opinion, it works better on the page than it does in performance on stage. So the Golden Nike for ‘Best Acting Script’ goes to Frank McGuinness and the Golden Nike for ‘Best Creative Translation’ to Anne Carson. And what her version does do in the theatre is to call for its audience to listen to every word, and to realise that this drama is not expressed in simple everyday language. I like that. I hope that my versions, in their different way, do the same.

Featured image credit: Winged victory, Nike statue, Rome, Italy, by Mstyslav Chernov. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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