Medea at the Oxford Playhouse

On a dark and particularly drizzly evening in early November I hurried down Beaumont street towards the Oxford playhouse and my first ever Oxford Greek play. It was with some surprise that I turned the corner to see two long queues snaking out of both doors and trailing halfway down the street. Of course, I was delighted to see so many people out for the evening to support student theatre but was also shocked by the plentiful uptake for an almost two-hour long recitation of Ancient Greek!  

            As a doctoral student working on the reception of the ancient world, this performance was a must see for myself. But what, I wondered, was the impetus behind this much broader interest in watching the ancient tragic art? I’ve had the pleasure of attending numerous moving contemporary student theatre productions that rival the impact of many a Greek tragedy but were not half so well attended. A question I frequently grapple with in my work and found myself brooding on again that evening was what constitutes the pervasive allure of ‘the Classic’?

            A Greek title on the poster fills seats. There’s no question about it, and it did not fail to that evening. As we made our way into the theatre and took our places, I looked up to the stalls to watch it steadily filling up. An excited sense of anticipation floated around the room as the audience collectively awaited the start of this most murderous tale of motherly monstrosity. Medea after all, is a most disturbing and gruesome tale. It details a single day in the life of a mother grappling with the betrayal of her husband and the loss of her homeland. In an increasingly violent turn of events, Medea contemplates and then accomplishes the systematic execution of Creusa (the ‘other woman’), Creusa’s father and finally her own two sons.

            Nothing about Medea screams a pleasant way to spend a drab Thursday evening in the already dreaded fifth week. And the production itself showed no intention of shying away from the darkest reaches of this Euripidean nightmare. The messenger’s speech detailing the flesh falling of the bones of Creusa’s father was by no means softened in the on-screen translation. Nor was the off-stage murder of Medea’s children confined to the safety of the audience’s imagination. The true horror of the act was revealed when a blood drenched Medea burst on stage with her dripping red hands outstretched.

            In short, the gruesomeness of Medea cannot be overstated, and this production, though by no means shocking as far as productions of Medea go, took a part in this horror. Why then, should a play so painful and disturbing, draw out the theatre-going public like nothing else? Perhaps you’re now expecting me to applaud the ‘eternal’ resonance and ‘timeless’ themes of the Greeks? But for me, the monopoly the classics hold as the ‘pinnacle of the arts’ is deeply disturbing. For centuries Greek tragedies have been placed on a pedestal by white male scholars in the crowning position of a hierarchy of art. We’re often led to believe that classical literature is ‘good’ for us, that it feeds us up with the ‘undying knowledge’ of the Greeks. In other words, that the classics are of ‘more value’ than other art.

But of course, this is a harmful illusion. Medea is objectively of no higher artistic value than any other play, film, soap opera or even reality show. In fact, I’ve witnessed many moments of peak tragic power in modern tv that have thrilled and moved me just as much if not more than any production of Medea I’ve seen. A brilliant example being the 2015 BBC series Dr Foster which features a startling Suranne Jones in a (very) loose contemporary reimagining of the Medea story. Modern receptions aside, it’s easy to forget that the allure of ‘the Classic’ is also a deeply insidious one, rooted in problematic and dangerous eurocentrism, colonialism and in the UK, classism. When we value the classics too highly, we devalue other forms of art.

            So as the curtain was raised and the drama began to unfold, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the occasional splash of English dialogue. A welcome move towards accessibility. While for many, the tradition of an all-Greek recitation is a fun gimmick, for me, it smacks more than a little of Oxford elitism. Ancient Greek is taught at absolutely zero non-fee-paying schools in the UK and only at the most expensive private schools. In other words, Greek is the preserve of the privileged. And even at universities, Classics has some of the most heinous accessibility issues of any subject. Surrounded by the unintelligible tones of a Grecian recitation and in Oxford’s already often pretentious environment, can be an extremely alienating experience. As the curtain fell and the clamour of the audience’s applause petered out, I was left wondering how many spectators felt the pang of being intellectually out of the loop. How many, like me were the victims of the notorious Oxford imposter syndrome?

In all, it was a valuable and enjoyable evening which spurred the contemplation of many topics very close to my heart. And I encourage anyone reading this to seek out any Greek tragic performances they have the will and means to attend. But I also wish to reiterate: there’s so much more out there of value in student theatre, literature and the arts besides the classics.

Milly Cox