London Bridge to the Greenwood Theatre
and this week you could watch my students enact the most peculiar of ancient
plays. Euripides was always avant-garde, but his Alcestis is borderline outrageous.
|King's College Greek Play 2016|
Admetus gets the unusual chance of avoiding death on his allotted day if he can produce someone to die in his place. Only his wife Alcestis offers. He accepts.
She dies. All involved (including their lovely children) weep. Then Admetus’
old chum Heracles turns up, gets drunk, wrestles with Death, and brings Alcestis
back from the dead. Everyone (except, conspicuously, Alcestis) cheers.
|Northern Broadsides/Hughes Alcestis|
sting in the tale is that, even before the play is over, Admetus breaks the
single promise he made to Alcestis—that he would never marry again and inflict a step-parent on their children. He doesn’t realise that the
attractive veiled lady Heracles offers him a blind date with is, in fact, Alcestis. He
takes her in as a new bedmate anyway. So the play ends with a revenant wife who
has a bit of a bone to pick with her morally invertebrate husband.
favourite adaptation is a Victorian musical-comedy burlesque (1850),
performed next door to King’s College at the Strand Theatre. This Alcestis
leapt at the opportunity to leave her self-important husband and bunk off with the
handsome young Death to a fun new life in the Underworld. Its title was Alcestis! The Original Strong-Minded Woman!!!
|T.S.Eliot's Alcestis, Vivienne|
But writers with
absent wives have always taken the play more seriously. Robert Browning adapted
it in Balaustion’s Adventure (1871) when
trying to cope with the loss of Elizabeth Barrett. T.S. Eliot adapted it in The Cocktail Party, which he wrote in
1948, the year his estranged wife died in a mental hospital. Ted Hughes, who
had buried two mothers of his children, left his version when he died, with the
instructions that it should be performed by Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides
how can a supposedly gender-equal
world restage a patriarchal story in which a woman’s greatest virtue is defined
as embracing the idea that her life is worth much less than a man’s? Euripides admittedly does his best, not only by that sinister ending but by portraying Admetus as a
weasel-worded slimebag who can’t stick by a principle for two minutes.
My enterprising students, brilliantly organised by producer David Bullen, also did their best by rewriting the ending and with Marcus Bell’s superb
choreography; Pina Bausch-style movements accompanied the exquisite ancient Greek
verses recited by my esteemed mellifluous colleague Professor Michael Silk, who knows more
than anyone alive about the poetic rhythms of classical Greek. But the play still bothers
me and always will. Anybody out there
have any ideas about how the plot could be made truly 21st-century?
|The Ever-youthful Professor Silk|
It is hard to "enjoy" this play. But I have always admired Alcestis without pondering her gender. That said how about switching the roles of the lead characters. Will Admetus die for his wife?ReplyDelete
I think straightfoward swapping often shows up the tensions and woulf love to see such a production. Try it on Hippolytus too--stepfather in love with sporty teenage girl.Delete
A Winter's Tale is an interesting adaptationReplyDelete
Absolutely! That ending.... quite spinechilling in ShakespeareDelete
A Winters Tale is an interesting adaptationReplyDelete
Alcestis refuses to go. That's 21st century, isn't it? Instead, she tells Admetus where to go.ReplyDelete
Yes. I kinda agree. Her children need her and that should trump everything.Delete