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Staging the tragic chorus today

Over the summer I saw a production of Antigone at the Schaubühne in Berlin, and for the most part I absolutely hated it. In a way this was rather good – I’ve seen so many blah-blah-just-fine productions of Greek tragedy that it’s easy to forget the invigorating ire that trickles down your spine when you see the immortal lines to which you’ve devoted your career trampled into the dust before your eyes. It was a classic example of artistic navel-gazing at its most extreme: the whole play was set in a therapy group, where the actors took it in turns to adopt the roles of different participants in the myth to work through their own issues, and then came out of character to discuss what they’d learned from the process. Everything was blasted with self-referential irony until every last trace of emotion withered and died. Tiresias was played by a glove-puppet who threw fried chicken all over the stage while uttering his prophecies in a squeaky voice. The duel between Polynices and Eteocles was staged as a wet towel fight. There was far too much silver glitter involved at every point.

But this performance also achieved something I’ve rarely seen in a modern production of a Greek tragedy: it made the choral odes the most exciting part of the play. The chorus was a live indie-rock band with keyboard, percussion, harmonium, guitars, and a vocalist, who performed the odes to music (the German translation was projected as surtitles, so that the audience could follow). You can hear their version of the Ode to Eros as the background music to the production’s trailer online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UmFUv9_Qjs.

Now obviously purists can find plenty to complain about here: after all, the format and performance style of a modern rock band has little to do with the ancient Greek chorus. Indeed, the German theater critics were unimpressed: it was described as a ‘pseudo-musical’ by one, while others complained that the style of music was inappropriate for a Greek tragedy (there’s a review roundup at http://goo.gl/ZtpHiJ). But I felt it expressed something authentic, because it connected to a real function that music plays for us today in relating to the world. The band wasn’t something made up for the performance: it’s a real group (called Kante, originally from Hamburg), so whether or not you like their songs, you can’t deny that they’re a genuine part of contemporary musical culture.

I’ve always thought when teaching Greek tragedy that the biggest problem with understanding the chorus, let alone staging it in a live performance, is that it has no real cultural analogue for us. For the Greeks, the chorus acted as a marker of important events, whether in the life of the community (religious festivals, celebrations of victory) or the individual (weddings, funerals). But group song and dance forms little part of the way we mark such events nowadays. It’s possible to think of exceptions – for example, crowd songs at sporting events, hymns in religious services, or even the ritual of singing ‘happy birthday’. These things can be helpful for getting students to think about choral performance in ancient Greece, but the trouble is that they’re rather tangential for most of us.

For modern directors, this makes staging a fully-fledged singing and dancing chorus difficult. We tend to associate it with cheesy musicals, and the unnaturalness of it can break the dramatic tension. On the other hand, we’ve all experienced the cringeworthiness of a production where the chorus consists of a bunch of people speaking in unison for no obvious reason, as parodied by Woody Allen in Mighty Aphrodite (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7MYyuxNhQo), or the flatness of having it represented by a single actor. Successful stagings of a Greek chorus, I think, are ones that try to connect with something significant or true about music or dance as a way of relating to the world. The best Greek chorus I’ve ever seen was in a play called Molora, a South African adaptation of the Oresteia, which used African traditions to stage a chorus performing Xhosa music. It’s no coincidence that this production comes from a culture where ritual still forms an important part of life.

But what can we western Europeans or north Americans do, since we don’t any longer have a connection to a tradition of ritual song and dance? However different modern pop music may be to ancient song-culture, perhaps the similarities are more interesting than the differences. For many of us pop songs are something that we turn to in order to deal with life-changing events - who didn’t listen to weepy songs as a teenager as a way of getting over a broken heart? They can act as social commentary, and, like Greek tragedy itself, they’re a form of mass entertainment. But most important, if you stage your chorus as a rock band, you’re using it to connect with the contemporary audience’s experiences outside the play, and to help them bridge the gap between the dramatic world, and the world they know.

It’s not surprising that our students struggle with the tragic chorus: the language is difficult, the odes are full of references to myths they don’t know, and it’s hardly unreasonable if to them it seems an irritating filler between the more exciting episodes where stuff actually happens. The sad thing is that it’s exactly the opposite of how it should be: the chorus was originally something familiar to the audience from their own lives, which spoke to their experiences of dealing with the human condition. And that’s why I think the Berlin director was onto something. The production I saw was filled with teenagers, probably studying the Antigone at school. I’d love to believe they left thinking that the tragic chorus meant something to them.

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