The past year has brought so many unexpected changes to the world order that one might feel inundated and overwhelmed on an everyday basis. Having graduated from Oxford in 2019, I can only imagine what it felt to be in Oxford during 2020 and 2021. Being an alumnus, I can also allow myself the liberty of reminiscing about Annual Greek Plays I have seen. These memories could be condensed into the excitement of listening to Ancient Greek recited from the stage and marvelling at the fact that Oxford University, with its long tradition of studying Classics, can be one of the rare places where such authenticity can be reached or at least aspired to.
This year’s play definitely mirrors the eclecticism of experiences that modern students have been subjected to. Its directors Alison Middleton and Marcus Bell, both already experienced in putting up a Greek play in the University context, have had a lot to grapple with in their production of Euripides’ Orestes (a relatively unknown play dating back to 408BC), with the limitations of the pandemic taking away the opportunity of a live, physically grounded production and transferring it into a Zoom format. There are not many references by which to judge a Zoom play, so in many ways it opens the mind of the viewer to experiments of its creators. And indeed, this is where Orestes - a play that is basically about how the men of Argos judge Orestes (and Electra) after his matricide – was a feast of abundance and creativity of form.
The performance started with a Zoom picture featuring all the actors preparing for their performances, plus some shots from the video art (Cosette Pin). Then, after an introductory monologue by Electra (Anwar Omeish) there was a brief section of dialogue (between Helen and Electra) in Ancient Greek. Then it moved to a very inventive comedy roast written by Alison Middleton and Ararat Ameen. What originally would have been judgements on Orestes brought to the stage by the messenger have been transformed into some kind of comedy battle featuring all the main characters of the play: Electra, Orestes, Helen, Menelaus, Pylade and even Apollo (a real feat of acting from Philippa Lang who made a good pun on ‘current circumstances’). Then we were asked to cast online votes, and after a break a new form awaited us: an academic discussion pretending to be a breaking news feed on what I would call an ‘Orestes and matricide theme’, led by several dignitaries ranging from academics to comedians: Fiona Macintosh, Rosa Andújar, Edith Hall and Natalie Haynes. And then, after a long series of video shots that were mainly reflecting the troubled modern world, we had a final Deus ex machina episode featuring good acting from Orestes (Zakkai Goriely), Menelaus (Syren Singh) and wonderful Apollo.
The fantasies of creators were indeed overflowing and sometimes not even fitting into the 1.5 hour Zoom show. There was this spirit of youthful courage and inventiveness that I am really missing, being far from Oxford. The show reflected different discourses modern young people are immersed in and trying to incorporate into their lives. But what I lacked here were some very crucial points: the play’s plot just was not there (or if it was, it was almost impossible to follow alongside the inventory of new forms) apart from the very basics, such as Orestes’ judgement and his final divine deliverance. Then there was not too much Ancient Greek for an Annual Greek play. Yes, there were four different translations of an original text done by Oxford-based artists (Antoinette Drakes, Max Watkins, Ayna Li Taira and Nicollette D’Angelo), but while it is truly commendable, I wonder whether a non-Classicist will appreciate the nuances of those. The Zoom format could have provided more opportunities for good acting (Philippa Lang gave a delicious example of how it could be done) from young Oxford students in close-up, while more attention was paid instead to visual effects that reduced the overall coherence and theatricality of the show. A true battle of formats and discourses done with youthful desire to impress and fit everything possible into a short play, but where was playwright Euripides in it?