The word of the day is prosaic!
But I rarely see them treated as new, sometimes they are produced on their good graces alone. I feel that we have collectively lost touch with these works, and very few people are trying to get them back.
With my boyfriend in tow, I stumbled upon Frank McGuinness' Phaedra at the Donmar Warehouse. Not only had this unfortunate production been pushed back, but it was because one of the leads had to be replaced at the last minute, resulting in a girl with a flashlight throwing lines to replacement Hippolytus when he dropped them. Props to him for jumping into a role so late in the game. But what is everyone else's excuse?
This telling, after Racine's, is aimless. With vague costumes and setting, we are left floating in an equivocal mess. We could be in ancient Athens, but no one wants to say. Instead of creating a world where these events and passions are possible, a world where the acts of the gods upon these hapless humans is a foregone conclusion, we have a strange attempt at a middle ground. Phaedra wants to be naturalistic and modern; McGuinness has taken the language to a muddled middle ground where the ideas can't mesh with the awkward interruptions of modern phrasing and vernacular. These are characters without a properly matching voice for their action. And of course, as in other Greek tragedies, the 'action' lies in wordy description of offstage events and interior desires. Phaedra never accepts this, and instead tries to be what it is not. We cannot sympathize with these characters the way we would in a kitchen-sink-drama, because they are not set up that way. Even the actors were aware of that, as the actress playing the title character explained, "The one thing that you don't do with the Greeks is ask what sort of woman am I playing. The process is not one of finding out what sort of shoes she wears. When you play this kind of role you are a blank canvas who is affected by outside forces. It is a primal and mythological experience, not small and internalised like western drama."
It isn't enough anymore---for me, at least-- to put these works up for their own sake. As with the selection of any play, we have to ask why this, and why now? Is there some new insight to be gained? How can we illuminate some part of this story, and how might we do it with respect to this play and this audience?
Purists will fight to leave these plays as is, but I agree with Robert Brustein, who writes, "...charges of 'desecration' are meaningful only if you subscribe to the idea of a 'definitive' production. I don't. The specialness of theatre--alas, the poignance of the theatre, too-- is its impermanence." Besides, how do we decide what is and isn't faithful to a text? Isn't it faithful to bring out the embedded ideas of a text, to penetrate what is there and find a heart, whether or not that aligns with what we may have come to know as the accepted traditional staging? If we don't look at these works with fresh eyes, they will become decrepit and ragged; they will show their age.