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Challenging Expectations: The notorious productions of Peter Sellars’ Ajax and Anatoly Vasiliev’s Medea

Marios Kallos

University of British Columbia

The paper will use two modern productions of ancient Greek Drama to explore what constitutes a ‘failed’ performance and how, in retrospect, some such performances have been recast as a success. Looking at Peter Sellars’ 1986 production of Sophocles’ Ajax (performed at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C.) and Anatoly Alexandrovitch Vasiliev’s 2008 production of Euripides’ Medea (performed at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus), I will argue that a ‘failed’ performance requires external expectations (which may or may not be met) and is therefore different than a bad production (though it can be both), and that critical reception in the moment need not coincide with retrospective perceptions.

In 1984 Peter Sellars, at the age of 26, was appointed director and manager of the American National Theatre, despite his reputation as the enfant terrible of contemporary American theatre. Two years later his production of Sophocles’ Ajax would mark the end of his brief tenure, with audiences polarized by his radical directorial choices and board members exasperated by expensive productions and low box office returns. Anatoly Vasiliev’s Medea brought the prominent Russian director to the ancient theatre of Epidaurus, where his interpretation of Medea was met with profound hostility, to the point that Jason (played by Greek actor Nikos Psarras), broke off from the lament of his children and in response to the persistent booing of the audience shouted, ‘Give me a break!’ The audience answered back, ‘Give me a break! That’s what we’ve been asking for’. Both productions, as I will argue, meet the definition of a ‘failed’ performance on a number of fronts, yet both in retrospect have been deemed to be significant productions of classical plays and both directors have gone on to ever more illustrious careers, particularly in Europe.

Using pre-opening promotional materials, I will examine how the shows were being sold and therefore what can be said about the expectations for it in advance. I will then look at reviews of the show, with attention to what aspects of the production are being focused on and what that can tell us about how the shows were perceived in the moment to ‘fail’. And finally, I will look at the afterlife of the shows, especially how they fit into the larger narrative of the careers of the directors. I will argue that the idea of a ‘failed’ production needs to be considered within a much larger theatrical context, including both the immediate critical context in which it is performed and the expectations which frame that context, as well as a chronologically wider lens that allows us to see how a given production fits into the larger narrative and trajectory of both the individual artist but also the reception of ancient Greek drama.

Session/Panel Title

Problems in Performance: Failure in Classical Reception Studies

Session/Paper Number

51.6

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