Oxford student company Stupid and Brave Productions banish the Battle of Troy to the interval by combining two classical Greek plays, Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis in the first half and Sophocles’ Ajax in the second, to create an all-new production.
In the first half, Iphigenia at Aulis, Agamemnon (Tom Bannon) and all the Greek armies are unable to set sail for Troy to retrieve Helen (wife of Menelaus, his brother, played by Alex Marks) because of a lack of wind. The problem? To appease the goddess Artemis and ensure the winds will blow he must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia (Maddy Page). Lured by the promise of a wedding to Achilles (Luke Buckley Harris), Iphigenia arrives but brings her mother, Clytemnestra (Katie Friedli Walton) along for the celebration. While almost every character, including Iphigenia herself, changes their minds over the right thing to do, Clytemnesta stands firm among them, in an ageless display of protective motherhood.
To demonstrate just how radical a departure from the Sophocles’ Ajax in the second half really is, I can tell you it entirely dispenses with the character Ajax. Agamemnon is instead cast as the protagonist who descends into madness after the end of the war and ultimately falls on his sword (subject of the best black-figure vase painting of all time). This worked for the most part, until the substitution of Tecmessa (Ajax’s lover) for Clytemnestra. In a scene where she tenderly bathes Agamemnon’s wounds it was difficult to accept tenderness as believable emotion in the second half from a wife whose husband ritually sacrificed their daughter in the first. I can’t have been the only one wondering “shouldn’t you be murdering him in the bath?”.
In both halves, the Chorus, and decisions made about how to use the chorus, were outstanding. The changing tones of different pairs or groups of speakers brought a musicality to the spoken word which evoked the singing of Ancient Greek, but ensured we could still understand every single word. The chorus also acted out many of the stories which they recounted (from Leda and the Swan to Atreus’ gruesome soup) bringing the wider mythical world beyond these plays to life, helping a modern audience with the rich background of which ancient viewers would have already been aware.
The simple set of imposing, concrete-coloured, ceiling-height columns functioned well as buildings and forests in the first half (distinguished with lighting by Will Hayman) and as the walls of Troy in the second. The sound design (Loïc Deread) was haunting, present and yet not overbearing – this delicate touch left room for the chorus’ voices to shine.
This show success lies in the collaborative process behind its creation, its relatively high production values and the strength of expertise behind the scenes. It is no doubt an experience which will help to shape the next generation of cast and creatives.
Shadows of Troy runs from Wednesday 12 to Saturday 15 February at Oxford Playhouse.