you're reading...

Classics on TV: BFI Southbank programme, 23 June 2012

Today sees the fourth programme in the five-night Screen Plays season Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen at BFI Southbank. This afternoon and evening we will see The Oresteia, the Channel 4 version of the landmark 1981 National Theatre production of Aeschylus’ trilogy directed by Peter Hall. (No tickets for the 3.50pm showing are available via the BFI website but it may be worth getting on the standby list in case some become available immediately before the performance.)

For the earlier screenings on 7, 13 and 19 June we tried an experiment, inviting anyone who was at the screening to contribute their thoughts about the programmes on this blog. The experiment has been really successful – read the Comments on King Oedipus and Oedipus Tyrannus (7 June), Electra and Women of Troy with panel discussion with Fiona Shaw and Oliver Taplin (13 June) and Agamemnon (Part 1 of The Serpent Son) and Of Mycenae and Men – and so we will continue this for all the remaining two screenings.

Any and all responses, however brief, would be welcome in the Comments below – and John Wyver and I will also be offering some further thoughts.

My detailed Screen Plays post about the Channel 4 transmission of The Oresteia in 1983 remains available.

Full details of the season and our symposium about Greek tragedy on the small screen at the University of Westminster, which took place yesterday, can be found here.

Do please share your thoughts with us…


14 thoughts on “Classics on TV: BFI Southbank programme, 23 June 2012

  1. Virginia Rwab posted this on Jun 23 at 6:02 pm in the ‘Contact’ section, but it is most relevant here:

    I’d like to leave a comment about the Peter Hall Oresteia at the BFI

    The masks spoiled the whole thing. I felt I was in an emotional strait jacket. It was so bad I left after Agamemnon. I was not about to spend another 3 hours being emotionally suffocated.

    Pity, becauseTony Harrison’s script when I could hear it properly was terrific and so was the music. Also one of my brothers was in the anti chorus. But I hated the interpretation as a whole and would love to have seen the real faces. Also disliked the decision to use men in women’s roles. They were obviously terrific actors all of them, but even so. Why make that decision when one of the points of the small screen is that you can really see the expressiveness of faces. Sorry but I just cannot join in the adulation of Peter Hall about this production. The masks are a bad mistake.

    Posted by John Wyver | 23 June 2012, 8:53 pm
    • Thank you, Virginia, for your reaction to Agamemnon, the first part of today’s Oresteia screening at the BFI, and also for being the first to post a comment.

      Reading your reaction reminded me of a statement by Oliver Taplin, the classical advisor on the 1981 RNT production: ‘It is a production that has been much admired, and almost as strongly disliked and derogated’ (in the essay ‘The Harrison Version: “So long ago that it’s become a song?” ’, in Fiona Macintosh et al., eds., Agamemnon in Performance, 458 BC to AD 2004, pp. 235-251, on p. 235, Oxford University Press). I’ve read quite a lot of the press reaction to both the stage version and the television transmission two years later (some of which I draw on in my blog post at and views are indeed, as Taplin says, polarised – especially on masks and translation – so your strongly negative reaction has much precedent.

      But I wonder whether your negative experience of the masks today may have been exacerbated by the fact that we saw them so much bigger than we would have done if we had been spectators in the theatre in 1981 or viewers sat in front of our television sets in 1983? I found the masks in Agamemnon particularly problematic owing to the rather static nature of the choruses. The choruses in the two following plays were differently dressed, differently masked and to my eye, at least, more mobile. And, as I will elaborate more in my comment on the screening as a whole (which I hope to post later tonight, below), I enjoyed them a lot more as a result.

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 23 June 2012, 10:24 pm
  2. I loved the Peter Hall Oresteia, one of the most powerful theatrical experiences I can remember. So many things came together wonderfully. The script was full of a vitality at times almost shocking. The music was thrilling and heightened the words miraculously. I’m afraid that, unlike the other member of the audience above, I loved the masks which distanced the action in a magical way. Of course they prevent certain kinds of expression from being seen at all, but tilted or thrust forward they can convey a lot. The great thing about them is the way they make the actors into something other than ordinary mortals playing parts in a play, something more like mouthpieces of forces beyond themselves. I was fascinated by seeing the tongues moving inside the masks, not something I notice in ordinary speech. The masks are a key part in the heightening of the whole action beyond the terms of everyday life. I thought most of the costumes worked beautifully to convey the strangeness of the acts and emotions being depicted. I don’t know what an all male cast would have meant to fifth century BC audiences but the incongruity of that also worked to make it all seem something beyond the control of individual human beings. And then of course there’s Aeschylus and what he chooses to present and — especially — what to leave out. Some of these choices are very surprising. The way deaths are presented may seem perverse to modern audiences but gets power from suppression.

    I’m grateful for the chance to see this staggering performance. Any chance the BFI could put it on a DVD? I got very used to the quality of the video and even thought its roughness suited the material. It’s one of the very best things I have seen. Robert Harbison

    Posted by robert harbison | 23 June 2012, 11:39 pm
  3. Yesterday over one hundred people turned up to spend nearly five hours of their Saturday watching the 1983 Channel 4 version of Peter Hall’s National Theatre Oresteia trilogy. Amongst our number was Sir Peter Hall himself, with his family, which certainly added a nice frisson to the event. I noticed one person leave, tutting, during Libation Bearers, and Virginia Rwab – who comments above – left after Agamemnon, and no doubt others escaped into the summer rain in between the plays, but the audience didn’t seem to have diminished substantially at the end of five hours of almost continuous Greek tragedy: impressive!

    It was wonderful to see unexpected friends there and to build a nice – if fleeting – sense of community by chatting to those sat around me in the two ten-minute intervals. As I bid my goodbyes, as I navigated my way through the post-Ascot crowds at Waterloo and even as I had my breakfast this morning, I felt the distinct sense that we had really gone through something together. It was something very unusual, occasionally odd, and with patches of hard going, but it was something that had ultimately been very worthwhile.

    I have written about this production – with a focus especially on Agamemnon – in the Screen Plays blog post noted above. I admit that I had never previously seen the three parts of this television Oresteia back-to-back: I think I will need to continue to digest the richness of this experience, which – as I said above – wasn’t always easy going, but I will make a couple of points for the moment.

    The experience of seeing it on film and on the big screen was, of course, qualitatively different from watching a VHS recording on a television screen. In many ways it was better. But I think that the largeness of the picture brought into sharper relief one of the problems I have with the television version of the production. For me, there was a rather tiring lack of variety in the sequences of almost identical close-up shots of the masks of the chorus in Agamemnon; I found the choruses in the subsequent two plays more mobile, so the cameras caught more full-body movement which had the result of energizing the masks much, much more. In the documentary that Channel 4 transmitted the night before in 1983, the actor Greg Hicks talks about how ‘the mask impels me to move my body in a certain way’: in other words, movement and mask are not inseparable and to focus on the mask without the body isn’t, I think, a good idea for long stretches. Related to this, the fact that the big screen made the movement of the tongues and lips underneath the actors’ masks clearly visible meant that the frequent lack of synchronisation between voice and lips was obvious and, for me, quite awkward (e.g. many times during the choruses the camera lingered on the mask of an actor who was not the one speaking). But, this would have been, I imagine, far less noticeable (indeed, perhaps hardly at all) in the stage production and original television transmission.

    Some moments were even more electric for being projected onto so large a screen. Clytemnestra’s ‘Shagamemnon’ speech, for example, delivered with passion bubbling over the lifeless bodies of her husband and his war-booty Cassandra. And there were innumerable moments when the perspective of the camera, the framing of tableaux and close-up were used to great effect. Just one example will serve here: when Clytemnestra appears from the palace to meet a visitor, who happens to be her son Orestes in disguise (the son she hasn’t seen in many years and who has arrived to kill her), she stands at the palace doors to the left, warm and welcoming, and in the foreground on the right he stands, facing the audience / camera, his hands anxious and his chest pumping out rapid, shallow breaths as he addresses her (I post an image of this fleeting moment above).

    My final point. There was something momentarily very odd being part of an audience in a raked auditorium watching the opening shot of the audience in the Olivier. As if we were looking at a mirror into the past, three decades ago – except, of course, for the difference of location and the layers of mediating technology. The shots of the audience at the beginning of Agamemnon and the end of Furies really energised this television production. I missed not having more glimpses of the anchor of the audience during the rest of the trilogy, especially as this was clearly being shown as a continuous record of a stage production (albeit with shots taken from three different performances). The ending I found really powerful because of the interaction with the audience: the chorus of Furies come to the edge of the stage and hold their palms out towards the audience, bidding them to ‘Fare well, fare well, grow wealthy, grow great / fare well, citizens […]’. Then the chorus of Athenian women continue to address the audience with ‘Stand and be silent while the Kind Ones [the Furies] pass’. After this is repeated once or twice the chorus get up, there is the distinct sound of theatre seats flipping up (another weird ‘mirror’ moment for me: a part of me thought we too should stand?), and the camera pulls back so that we see the heads and shapes of the members of the audience in silhouette and the chorus passing by, out of the auditorium. The chanting, the drumming, the choral singing, the lantern, the procession, the sense of a ritual being choreographed by the goddess Athena – it was an extremely charged moment on which to end.

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 24 June 2012, 9:34 am
    • Thanks, Amanda, for such a vivid account (and of course for the season as a whole). As you know, I couldn’t be there. I spent the afternoon chasing down a shot that we found was “missing” from the broadcast master of Julius Caesar, which I am producing and which is transmitted tonight at 8pm on BBC Four – and don’t worry we found it. But it’s great to see another very interesting discussion developing.

      I wanted only to highlight your comment about the shots of the audience. As we watch more theatre plays televised from the theatre, I am increasingly interested in such audience shots, which are almost always very brief but yet incredibly revealing about the composition of audiences for theatre (as well as fashion and people’s taste in haircuts). I can’t think there are other records of audiences – are there any photographers who took such pictures? – and so this is a unique element of our object of study.

      Posted by John Wyver | 24 June 2012, 9:49 am
      • I agree, John, that’s a really interesting aspect of the theatre-televised productions for which we’ve only got a few, albeit revealing, fragments. Let’s hope we can unearth more. So glad the missing Julius Caesar shot was found just in the nick of time! Phew!

        Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 24 June 2012, 10:20 am
  4. Ed Sayeed posted this on 24 June 2012, 9.25am as a response to Amanda Wrigley’s article on the Oresteia, elsewhere on this site, but it’s most relevant here:

    Loved the Oresteia at The BFI last night. Great work Amanda on sorting this for public presentation. It was my introduction to Tony Harrison’s translation. I particularly liked his rendering of Cassandra’s dialogue: sparse, terse and sudden. Her costume was also a treat, as were the wonderfully appropriate clashing sounds. (Not such a fan of misogynistic ending of the trilogy – but we’ll have to forgive aeschylus – he could write a bit!!)

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 24 June 2012, 9:38 am
  5. Hi Amanda
    It was a great to see my father’s production again (co-edited I seem to remember by my brother Christopher Hall) – As a kid I sat in on the original workshops for it in 1977 and watched the final plays many times.
    We were talking yesterday about David Rose, who ran “It Came From Pebble Mill” from BBC Birmingham (and then launched Channel 4 Film) he commissioned many plays for TV during his time. Would a chat with him be useful for your research project?

    Posted by Jennifer Hall | 24 June 2012, 5:01 pm
    • My apologies, Jennifer, in the pause in my response to your comment but I’ve been knee-deep in archival material in a university library today!

      It was wonderful that you were able to come to the screening to re-live your memories of sitting in on the workshops and seeing the play in the theatre: I imagine that it was an incredibly rich experience to see the thing develop over those few years!

      Very grateful to you for the David Rose suggestion. You’re right, he’s such an important figure and John and I must try to interview him for the Screen Plays project. The project’s methodological net covers only stage plays produced for television, rather than work created especially for the medium; although, of course, it would be wonderful to hear about the full and rich range of his work.

      Thank you, again – it was a great pleasure to meet you on Saturday.

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 25 June 2012, 7:47 pm
  6. I am firmly on the side of those who loved Peter Hall’s Oresteia and I would jump at the chance to buy it on DVD. For me the integration of percussive music and earthy, robust language, the dramatic pauses and chanted poetry became cumulatively ever more hypnotic. I felt that the masks were an key part of the performance, and the effective way in which the actors exploited the masks with their body language created, for me at least, the illusion of changes of expression. The masks also helped to focus attention on the spoken word and enhanced the mythical basis of the trilogy, which is so important in the final play, which is dominated by dialogue between gods rather than between men.

    I did find the lip movements in some of the close-ups distracting, mainly where the actors in dark masks appeared to have dark make-up on their lips and around their mouths and which sometimes reflected back (for example Athena).

    On the question of male actors playing female characters, I would like to raise the question of whether this was a deliberate challenge to gender assumptions at the time (and I guess Peter Hall knows the answer to this one!). For example, the Furies’ costumes revealed very obviously male Adam’s apples and body hair on upper neck, arms and legs. Clytemnestra’s sexy, clinging red dress on an obviously male body, with hairy male arms making stylised “female” gestures had elements of a drag performance. By contrast, Orestes, the avenging young male warrior, was covered up, but actually came across in costume, mask and gestures as quite effeminate. Perhaps exaggerated on the small screen, I think that this would have been apparent to most of the audience in the relatively small Olivier theatre (small that is compared to Epidaurus).

    This leads on to my final question. To what extent was the production a child of its time – Britain in the early eighties? My own recollection is Thatcherism against Trade Unionism, Brixton riots, yuppies and rising unemployment – entering into a time of greater uncertainty, good for some and bad for others. Did that create a more receptive audience for the “big issues” raised by Greek drama than exists today?

    Posted by David Royle | 24 June 2012, 6:15 pm
    • David, thank you for your valuable comments on Saturday’s screening. I find it fascinating how we as a group have such a varied response to distinct aspects of this production: for example, I found the lips less distracting – for the same reason you cite – in the later parts of the production than in Agamemnon!

      Certainly, the choice to have an all-male cast gestures towards this convention in antiquity and thus it sits quite comfortably alongside, for example, the decision to use full face-masks and do the three parts of the trilogy one after the other, all following the ancient model.

      In the documentary that I mentioned (in my introductory talk) as being transmitted the day before the Oresteia, Peter Hall commented on the gender question. As far as I remember he said something along the lines that it had to be done by one sex because with the formality and stylisation of the masks etc it wouldn’t have sat comfortably to have ‘naturalistic sexual differences’. See also my article, linked above, in which I mention the male-female play in the role of Clytemnestra.

      Really interesting questions you raise about the broader cultural and social context of this production – thank you. I’m not sure I have a firm answer … would anyone like to pick this up in discussion?

      Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 25 June 2012, 9:41 pm
  7. The National Theatre’s Oresteia was for me the high point of the BFI season – something I had wanted to see ever since I heard it was to be staged; but I was not living in the UK in the early 80s.

    Watching the film could hardly be the same as being present in the Olivier Theatre, but I still found it exciting, challenging, exotic and splendid in its own terms. As others have observed, the masks produced a distancing effect that emphasised the mythic power of the narrative rather than the personal psychologies of the characters. To me this was entirely apt since psychologising the story as Aeschylus presents it can often distort the text almost to incoherence. The masks enabled the actors to display a ritualised gravity and universality that had an immense cumulative effect. There cannot have been many occasions when the entire Olivier audience has been silently invited to particiapte in something as solemn as Athene’s welcoming of the Kindly Ones into her city – and I as a viewer of the film, receiving only the faintest echo of this, found it profoundly satisfying.

    There were idiosyncrasies about the filming of the chorus – the strange realisation that the mask or masks being shown were not necessarily those of the actors speaking at the time – or that the speaker was not (so far as the lip or tongue movements allowed one to judge) actually in synch with the sound. But I decided to go with the flow and trust the editing director to have found the mask whose disposition in visual terms matched the spoken word of the moment. Even with the comparatively static presentation (in filmic terms at least) of the Agamemnon chorus, there were many occasions when the tilt of a face, the posture of the shoulders beneath it, or the juxtaposition between two or three figures, was most expressive. As Amanda pointe dout, the chorus in the later plays was even more effective in terms of our epxerience as TV (or film) viewers.

    For the major characters, the masks enabled the all male cast to portray all the characters of the play. Clytemnestra in particular was an extraordinary rendition of a woman by a man, reminding me of the Japanese theatre traditions (I once saw a visiting Kabuki production in which both Hamlet and Ophelia were played by the same actor). Again I think that the use of the mask was vital, as it offset the potential campness of the bodily gestures; both factors became part of the acting convention that may plausibly be imagined as a way of portraying women on the Greek stage when all the performers were men. Quite different of course from various all-male Shakespearean productions that have been seen in recent decades. In those one is perhaps more conscious of the maleness of the actor by seeing his face, though no less delighted at and convinced by the artistry of the performance. Here we were seeing something quite strange to us, but very compelling.

    I came to the screening with mixed feelings having heard the criticism that there was too much use of close-ups at the expense of gaining a sense of the overall visual impact of the original stage production. However in the event I thought there was a greater variety of shots than I had been led to believe, and I guess the aim of the film was not so much to show how wonderful the Olivier Theatre was as a theatrical space, as to try to re-visualise the production in televisual terms. Perhaps a compromise, but by no means (in my opinion) a fatal one.

    I really liked the translation (or ‘version’, as it was more correctly credited) though I was aware from comments around me that this was another sore point for some. Its strange muscularity was all of a piece with the powerful impersonality of the masks, reminding us that we were watching an old story told originally long ago to people in many ways different from us. It was salutary to be reminded that Aeschylus was regarded as ‘old fashioned’ even by the next gerneration of Greek dramatists (Aristophanes has a great comic scene about this in which Aeshcylus’s words easily outweigh those of the moderns when tested in some special poetry scales). Rather than pointing this out by fusty antiquarian language we had the jolting use of totally unidiomatic but still comprehensible compounds such as ‘he-child’/’she-child’, or ‘he-god’/she-god’, which brilliantly emphasised both the otherness of the society and the primal dichotomies so easily forgotten in using words like ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ which seem unrelated to each other, or ‘god’ and ‘goddess’ in which the latter seems just a declension from the former instead of an equal. Similarly the use of ‘bed-bond’ contrasted with ‘blood-bond’ pointed up fundamental social relations which prove so fatially irreconcilable until Athene’s great act of resolution. All the time we were being forced to understand what was at stake by what was being said, and we were being forced to pay attention to what was being said by the way in which it was phrased.

    Since I commented adversely on the music for ‘The Serpent Son’ I must observe that I found Harrison Birtwhistle’s music far more subtly appropriate here. Basically it seemed not to compete with the spoken text and the human voice, but rather, to enhance it and complement it. At times the sing-song effects in the Libation Bearers did seem perilously close to mere doggerel, and the rhythmic insistence of the music only encouraged this; but in general I thought the transitions from speech to song were more effective in this production because it was always the actors whose voices we heard, rather than a shift from actors to singers.

    Thanks so much for this season – I regret I cannot see the Iphigenia; but I have been delighted to see everything else (including the Philoctetes extract at the Symposium). And I too would certainly buy a DVD of the Oresteia, and of anything else the BFI would care to offer from the season.

    Posted by Nicholas Watkinson | 25 June 2012, 10:25 pm
  8. Unfortunately, I was unable to be in London for the screening. I look forward to the day when this trilogy is available on DVD, being the only extant true trilogy of the Greek plays. (Sophocles’ Oedipus plays not being written as a trilogy.)

    My understanding is that many of the production choices, particularly the use of masks and male-gendered actors, were made so as to stage the performance in a manner similar to the ancients. This may be as close as we come to the ancient production in English on a screen, covered theatre notwithstanding. These choices may be an acquired taste and not sit well with some members of a modern audience, accustomed to a different concept of acting and actors.

    Personally, I love the opportunity to experience the plays in a form close to that for which they were written. I find the masks magical and abstracting, emphasising the impersonal and religious nature of the ancient acting. There are some elements of the English script that grate on me a little, with the use of many odd constructions such as “he-god” et cetera. However, there are also good arguments in favour of that translation.

    Did I mention that I’m looking forward to the DVD? An accompanying documentary explaining ancient theatrical practices and the production choices in this Oresteia would be fascinating, but then so would an interview with Aeschylus himself. Oliver Taplin and Edith Hall may have to substitute!

    In any case, thank you all for an interesting discussion.

    Posted by Charles | 26 June 2012, 10:52 pm
  9. Loved it, amazing chance to get an idea of the demands made on an audience, if not in quite Athenian conditions. Some of the costuming, especially Athena, reminded me of old-fashioned Germanic myth (and the Wagnerian impression was reinforced/created by the extreme length). The music was weird, jagged, and often pulsating. It was one of the many factors that contributed to a genuinely frightening experience at times (e.g. the entrance of Agamemnon). I would have liked to have seen more shots of the full stage – very few of these were offered and I got the impression that they were reserved for moments of shocked and/or stunned silence. Too often, simply the fact a character was speaking meant we had a mid-range or close-up shot of them, which got a little dull, and detracted from the fact that, clearly not using a naturalistic manner, we missed out on a fuller sense of how the actors tried to interpret very mannered, gestural, masked acting. We did get a sense of some hand gestures, but little of other movements – who knows, perhaps there wasn\’t very much movement as all energy had to be directed to getting the voice through the mouthpiece and into the auditorium. To open with a shot of the audience watching (us watching them) was not only a witty metatheatrical device, but a salutary reminder that this performance was not (as far as I am aware) \’for\’ television, only the filiming, and that should prevent us from being too critical. Having said that, to linger quite so long on (very) close ups of faces gives us (the tv audience) a privilege open only to those in the theatre audience with supreme eyesight. For the theatrical spectator, the pictures given to the tv audience are as impossible as impossible to grasp as it is to film the roving-eyed experience of the theatre goer and offer it to a television viewer. I think the two viewpoints, which are both multiple and both flawed in different ways, are complementary and it is brilliant that Hall & co got to do this, for many reasons. I would be interested to see \’the view from the back\’ (i.e. the whole stage) for a sustained period, just to get a sense of the disposition of the actors and to what extent things were static. I didn\’t feel from the screening I got a sense of being \’there\’ particularly – and I can\’t imagine that was the intention – but what I did get was a thrilling story, witty dialogue, and memorable characters and visuals (though I would say that the revelation of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, dead, although it obviously does double the first play\’s killings, looked so similar that some of the effect was lost). I thought I would regret the all-maleness of the cast, but in fact disappointment that Clytemnestra was not played by a woman quickly disappeared. The worst thing was Tony Robinson\’s voice, not an issue at time of production, I\’m sure, but so recognisable now that it continually jarred and ended up like a car alarm that keeps going off: you know it\’s going to come back and annoy you at relatively regular intervals, and you end up adjusting your thought patterns to prepare for the unwelcome interruptions.

    The problem with that is, that unless you have an enormous, cinema-style screen, the field of vision is not subsumed in the same way as in live performance, so for telly you do need a close focus – and at that point masked drama I think probably reveals itself as a mode to be experienced in the flesh, not on tv. The witty effects of something like Mighty Aphrodite\’s chorus work ok because they are just one part of a sequence in which the majority of acting is naked as to the face!

    The fact that the 48 hours of original film, from all the different camera angles, are still available is a tantalising prospect, and a re-edited version would be fascinating.

    The way the expressions on the masks of particularly the first two choruses (the old men of Argos and the libation bearers themselves) appeared to change, and change fittingly, reminded me of an interesting article by Peter Meineck called \’The Neuroscience of the Tragic Mask\’, which you can find in Arion (I know, I know, but still) 19.1, 2011.

    Posted by Terence Conway | 27 June 2012, 5:01 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
%d bloggers like this: