Skip to content

Toggle service links

You are here

  1. Home
  2. Publications
  3. The Role of Greek Drama and Poetry in Crossing and Redefining Cultural Boundaries
  4. Characterising the Chorus: Individual and Collective in Four Recent Productions of Greek Tragedy [1]

Characterising the Chorus: Individual and Collective in Four Recent Productions of Greek Tragedy [1]

Open Seminar Series 2002
Alison Burke
Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh, Scotland


Interpreting the chorus presents a challenge to directors and actors alike. Recent modern productions have embraced this challenge through different approaches, varying from representing the chorus as the archetypal individual to developing group choruses that seek to represent different types within a general ensemble. The aim of this article is to investigate the reasons for these interpretations and their effects. Four different approaches will be examined: the chorus as a single archetypal figure (TAG’s Antigone); the chorus as a disembodied entity (Theatre Cryptic’s Electra); the chorus composed of individuals within a group identity (Deborah Warner’s Medea); and finally, the chorus as a unified group identity (theatre babel’s Medea).

Determining a research methodology for the above productions is a challenge. An appreciation of the complex relationship between directorial intent and audience understanding in live theatre productions requires a flexible research model.  Initially, directorial intent has been determined through interviews with directors available to discuss their work.  Cathy Boyd, the Artistic Director of Theatre Cryptic, and Struan Leslie, the guest Movement Director for TAG’s Antigone, provided interviews from which a greater understanding of the productions’ intentions was obtained. Graham McLaren, Artistic Director of theatre babel, whilst not being available for an individual interview, elucidated many aspects of his directorial approach at a panel discussion held at the University of Glasgow.[2] Although this approach provides a detailed basis from which to determine directorial approaches, several difficulties emerge. No member of the production team from Deborah Warner’s Medea has been available for comment,[3] and interviews, whilst they can determine the productions’ intentions, may not necessarily evidence the audiences’ understanding of the productions.  To reconcile these difficulties it has been necessary to research the performance reviews in the national press, both Scottish and English, which provide evidence of critical reception.  Critics, however, do not provide unassailable analysis; therefore, the following interpretation of the choruses’ roles, to a certain extent, rests on personal observation and analysis, which is informed by an awareness of a difference between the concerns of a modern and an ancient audience.

A useful point of departure is Sir Peter Hall’s theory of choral performance, not because his view of ancient performance methods is unassailable, but because his view of an organic and verbally individualised chorus may respond to, or result from, modern drama’s focus on the characterisation and psychological motivation of the individual. In Exposed by the Mask Hall writes:

…even if choral speaking is well drilled so that every syllable is precisely in unison, the very efficiency produces a dehumanising effect, and is certainly no aid either to understanding or to the provocation of the listener’s imagination.  Uniform speech is like uniform movement: abstract and inhuman.  It does not provoke feeling. So how were the Choruses performed? I believe that a single voice either spoke or sung or chanted every line that was complex.  It could then be understood.[4]

With respect to ancient performance, this must surely be considered an eccentric position; but, in terms of modern performance, what Hall rightly draws attention to (although perhaps unwittingly), is the modern audience’s unfamiliarity with and alienation from the sung/chanted text. It would be more accurate to consider that a modern audience is attuned to the privileging of the solo voice. This may be a consequence of the individualising impetus of modern dramatic plots; the modern audience, therefore, is more readily able to focus on individual expression. Without wishing to confine the imagination of theatre practitioners by theorising (indeed, any attempt would prove futile), it is the general thesis of this article that in some modern performances of Greek tragedy the modern drive to individualism results in the characterising of the chorus as an individual/collection of individuals.  Concomitant with this individualisation is a histrionic prejudice for the individual voice and individualised choreography and costuming.  Individualism, however, may not necessarily be at odds with the wider group function of the chorus in the original texts; modern readings of the individual figure can suggest a wider application: the audience comprising of the thoughts of many, can reinterpret the thoughts of the individual.  The concept of ‘timelessness’ may no longer be in vogue in classical criticism, yet in the realm of theatre production, the idea that the concerns of the Greeks are still relevant today and, therefore, communicable to a modern audience, justifies the continued performance of Greek tragedy.[5]

I begin with the TAG (Theatre About Glasgow) production of Sarah Woods’ version of Sophocles’ Antigone, [6]directed by James Brining and premiered at the Citizens’ Theatre (Glasgow) in September 2000. The TAG production physically developed Woods’ political appropriation of the tragedy as the tragedy of the community.  In response to the Making the Nation brief,[7] the production directed the audience’s attention to the role of the community by casting the Chorus as a single representative figure (played by William Elliot): the common man who faces the challenge of his own acquiescence to growing totalitarianism. The production sought consciously to engage the audience in a dialogue with the single choral figure; the question being, to what extent does political apathy allow for the restriction of socio-political freedom? Each audience member was required to determine his/her own political response to the political challenge symbolised by the burial of Polynices.[8]  The director James Brining clearly established this in an interview with The Herald journalist Rob Adams:

I’m interested in young people, or audiences, whoever, asking the questions about what it means to be a member of a society, of a community.  Where does our responsibility begin and end?  And that’s something that is in the play.  Where are the lines between us?  If her brother is lying out in a field somewhere and is not allowed to be buried, is that a problem for me or not?[9]

Through the characterisation of the chorus, the production established that the burial of Polynices was a ‘problem’ for the audience.  The initial position of the audience as passive spectators corresponded with the initial impartial and uninvolved attitude of the chorus. The textual journey, however, from the chorus figure’s initial neutrality to involved political resistance, was mirrored in the textual and performance requirement that the audience become alienated from the chorus’ neutrality, accepting that social/political acquiescence promoted the martyrdom of the active individual. Importantly, this alienation was not centred on the actions of Antigone, but on the reaction of the chorus figure.  Whether Antigone is right to bury Polynices was not part of the text or the performance: it was accepted as a correct action; what was being questioned was: how does the community react to the challenging action?

The audience’s focus on the reaction of the chorus was achieved through a variety of presentational modes; the interrelationship of stage and audience space, the language of non-verbal communication and the production’s design choices.  To examine first the interrelationship of stage and audience space: in the performance, the position of the chorus figure encouraged a relationship with the audience that was independent of the play’s internal discourse.   Choral odes were textually located in the present rather than in the remove of antiquity so that the chorus shared the same world as the audience.  Stage positioning further supported this: the chorus figure stood on the slight apron of the Citizens’ proscenium stage, occupying a liminal zone between auditorium and stage.  The chorus figure was then able to guide the audience into the play: the fluidity of time and space meant that the chorus became the audience’s lens, focusing the audience’s attention on either the dramatic events or the present of the choral odes. The chorus figure was also able to break through the ‘fourth wall’ since during choral odes the chorus spoke directly to the audience, asking questions of himself, and encouraging an internal questioning of the audience members, whereas, the episodes were acted without reference to the audience.  Therefore, the chorus figure was the most immediate point of reference for the audience and the focus of the removed episodes.

In respect to the language of gesture, TAG enlisted the choreographic skills of Struan Leslie.  Under Leslie’s direction the actors devised a system of non-verbal communication that typified their role.[10]  Initially the chorus and Ismene echoed the angular hand movements of Creon, which were devised from modern political oratory. The forceful diagonal hand movements were indicative of a non-verbal language of political power, which corresponded with Creon’s initial control. By imitating Creon, the chorus signalled his nascent alienation from Antigone and his tacit co-operation with Creon’s regime.  In contrast, Antigone’s identifying gesture was to release her fist.  On an immediate level this recalled her burial of Polynices, but the gesture was also redolent of political resistance.  In a reverse image the release of the clenched fist is seen as a gesture of resistance and, ultimately, the gesture of power. The audience’s focus, however, was on the chorus figure’s inability to mirror the gesture: the political apathy of the chorus prevented him from being able to emulate Antigone.  Indeed, the climax of the performance could be seen as the chorus member miming the action of Antigone, an act which physically symbolised the chorus’ joining with her struggle. The role of citizen compliance in supporting repression and, in an act of reversal, the power of the citizen resistance was, therefore, reinforced by the production’s physical text.

The development of the chorus’ archetypal position and the audience’s civic identification with the chorus was evidenced through the costume design. Although a specific time period was eschewed by the production, the juxtaposition of costumes created the impression of a military hierarchy reminiscent of the Raj.  The Chorus member was neutrally dressed in white linen jacket and trousers, which conformed to the image of an expatriate citizen, involved, yet not involved, belonging, and yet not belonging. The citizen status of the chorus was reinforced through juxtaposition with the named characters, whose costumes were designed to be indicative of their power position. Haemon and the Sentry wore dust-laden kilts, tee shirts and puttees, whilst Creon wore cream linen trousers tucked into brown leather boots, cream shirt and matching cravat and a full-length brown greatcoat. The costumes indicated participation in a shared military hierarchy, yet the chorus, whilst part of citizen compliance, was out with the martial hierarchy. In this way the single chorus member could be identified with the community through his ambiguous relationship with those in power.  So again, the individual chorus member is both an individual character but also the audience’s (for want of a better word) ‘representative’ in the challenge to totalitarianism. 

Therefore, in this production, the histrionic focus on the individual in terms of translation, choreography and costume, whilst privileging individualism, also promoted the concept of a community composed of individuals who must acknowledge their responsibility to society at large.  In this production the chorus might be a nameless figure, but his agonised questioning reinforced the necessity for each individual to face the challenge of political self-evaluation.  The chorus as a collective entity was implied through the anonymity of the individual; the collective aspect of the chorus function is, therefore, maintained.  Indeed, it may be that the chorus as an archetypal individual is more generic than Sophocles’ chorus of elders: without an explicit characterisation in Woods’ text, the chorus’ discourse affords an embracing identification.

In contrast with TAG’s focus on the individual man as every man, Theatre Cryptic’s performance of Electra Queen of Revenge, (based on Sophocles’ Electra) directed by Cathy Boyd and translated by Clare Venables,[11] radically reinterpreted the chorus as disembodied voices.  As the production’s subtitle suggests, the focus on the individual in this production was on Electra herself: Theatre Cryptic used the chorus to concentrate the audience’s attention on the eponymous heroine’s psychological journey to revenge. As with theatre babel’s Medea, Cryptic’s Electra was staged and re-staged in successive years.  The Electra was premiered at the CCA Glasgow in August 1999, transferred to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and then toured to Mexico and Colombia.[12]  The production was then redesigned and staged in the Gilmorehill Theatre in the Department of Theatre Studies, University of Glasgow, in May 2000.  The following discussion responds to the re-staging.[13]

Cathy Boyd’s approach to the chorus resulted from her interest in the integration of sound and image as well as her concern over group chorus performance.  In colourful terms she challenged the traditional group chorus by saying:

…there is nothing worse than how do you deal with a bloody chorus: get them off the fucking stage, because unless they are brilliant they get in the way.[14]

Arguably this concern typifies modern directorial anxieties over chorus performance.  Without the wider cultural environment and performance tradition in which the original performances were located, group choruses, because they are removed from modern cultural experience, can register as alien.[15]  The idea that a chorus can ‘get in the way’ entails the question of what is the chorus getting in the way of? Several possibilities come to mind: it may be that the chorus could be seen as a dominating visual focus, which, possibly as a consequence of our ‘intimate’ theatre spaces, overshadows, rather than integrates with, what a modern audience may identify as the protagonists of the play. It may also be that a modern audience is more prepared to prioritise the action of the named characters on stage and focus on the development of events and character rather than the development of muthos in a wider sense.[16] Without concurring with Boyd’s view, it is possible to speculate that if the audience/directorial focus is on specific character driven-action, some choruses (although certainly not all) may appear as a complement to, rather than an intrinsic part of, the action of the wider plot.[17]

Responding to the challenge posed by the chorus, Cathy Boyd chose to explore the relationship between sound and image.  The visual/aural aesthetics of the production was a major concern.  With an anti-naturalistic production, the relationship of image and sound was explored.  Cathy Boyd explained the wider environment she wanted to locate the Electra in:

I make things look very unreal because I want them to look beautiful.  I am ultimately emotionally led, that is my driving force.[18]

This unreality resulted in the existence of two worlds: the inhabited stage space in which the named characters existed and the aural space generated by the disembodied chorus.  These two worlds were linked through the figure of Electra: she alone was able to hear and communicate with the chorus.  Cathy Boyd explained the motivation for this accordingly:

The chorus are one of the deepest levels of Greek tragedy, they represent so many elements: Electra’s subconscious, they advise her in many areas – huge what they represent. So to enable all those different layers and their representation I felt it was important to look at that and how they were represented. How they interfere with her, ‘You are not alone Electra’, ‘Poor Electra’, they are on her side, they advise her, they are everywhere and to create that surrounding feeling, a circle around her.  I thought the only way to do that was to create this other huge world.[19]

As the chorus existed aurally, the presentational modes to be analysed differ from those relating to a visually present chorus. The chorus consisted of two voices, one male and one female, which delivered lines individually for the most part, although occasionally stressing a line by unison delivery (recorded by Steven Beard and Eurudike de Beul).  The lack of a physical presence encouraged a questioning of whether the chorus existed beyond the imagination of Electra.  As the play unfolded, the chorus variously seemed to be a source of mental torment to Electra and then a voice of approval.  The chorus could be seen as part of Electra’s consciousness: a voice of reason, which disputes with her desire for revenge, and then, after her relinquishing of Orestes as source of help, a source of encouragement.  The choral odes, therefore, reflected the struggle within Electra’s mind, to steel herself to become her mother’s killer.  It should, however, be noted that the male and female choral composition is at odds with Sophocles’ all-female chorus, although, at the time of the performance, this did not cause undue concern; by subverting the physical existence of the chorus, the character of the chorus was also subverted.  

By removing the chorus from the stage space the production concentrated the audience’s attention on the physical presence of Electra.  Without a physically present chorus Electra was stripped of the tangible support indicated in the text, and this isolated her further. This additionally evidenced the production’s emphasis on Electra’s journey to revenge.  Indeed, when Orestes finally makes his presence known, the production chose to present Orestes as a pair of projected eyes: a two-dimensional Orestes ensured that his existence and actions never eclipsed the Electra’s drive to action.  In directing the sequence thus, Cathy Boyd was deliberately challenging and undercutting the magnitude that the absent Orestes evokes:

One imagines Orestes to be a big hunk the way he is made out, but I purposely wanted to tease by just showing his eyes, so you can think of Orestes however you want.  The fact that Electra makes him out to be so huge and he was only a two dimensional projection.  A contrast between what people expected, what they hoped for and what they got.[20]

The soundscape (designed by Alistair MacDonald) also evidenced the psychological existence of the chorus and again spotlighted Electra’s construction of reality.  The choral voices were prefigured by the sound of television static: voices through electrical appliances could be considered as indicative of mental illness, suggesting that Electra’s desire for revenge is causing a mental imbalance.  This impression was further supported in the set design by Matt Johnson, which consisted of two mirrored flats stage left and right, and a video screen upstage centre.  The mirrors served to expand the perception of the space: enlarging the stage environment by replicating the visual image, but they also, paradoxically, enclosed Electra’s personal environment.  When Electra talked to herself, and sometimes when she talked to the chorus, she talked to her mirror image.  Her reflection could be considered as a physical manifestation of her sub-conscious; and this furthered the idea that the chorus was part of her thought process.  Therefore, the enlarged world exists as a visual illusion: limiting, in that the reflection continues only what is already present, as well as being an extension of the self.  The impression of an asylum was gained from the set. The staging gave the impression of Electra’s being constantly watched; even the audience (as a fourth wall) participated in the psychological evaluation of Electra’s state of mind. In this environment, Electra knelt on a hospital-style bed, dressed in white rags reminiscent of a straight jacket, which she occasionally ripped away. Her costume and the ripping of the fabric underlined the confinement of Electra as well as suggesting a physical manifestation of her psychological self-abuse. 

With respect to this production, the character of the chorus could be considered as an extension of the character of Electra; the drive to individualism, in this case, is the prioritising of Electra as the Queen of revenge.

The third performance to be discussed is Deborah Warner’s production of Medea, which transferred from the Abbey (Dublin, 2000) to the Queen’s (London, 2001), retaining Fiona Shaw as the eponymous heroine but rehearsed with a new supporting cast.[21]  Researching critical responses to the role of the chorus in Warner’s Medea is no easy matter, since, although the production received wide critical acclaim in the London-based newspapers, the vast majority of reviews focus exclusively on the performance of Fiona Shaw or her stage relationship with Jonathan Cake as Jason.  In a production that was effectively and significantly subtitled ‘Fiona Shaw’s Medea’,[22] it is not surprising that the interpretation and the performance of the chorus have excited little comment.  It may be that the key to understanding the dynamics of the production lies in why Shaw is prioritised in the reviews.  Arguably, Warner’s Medea could be considered as a star vehicle, continuing the long-standing close relationship between the actor and director. The production’s privileging of Medea’s plight as the betrayed but manipulative woman threw the spotlight on Shaw herself. Caution, however, must be exercised since, as it must be conceded that the Medea has long been the exacting role for a virtuoso actor and may have been composed with this intention.[23] A contributing factor may also be that the modern focus on the individual’s experience finds a particular outlet in the eponymous heroes of Greek tragedy, and that this, coupled with the marketing of productions in London’s West-End using star names, generates a powerful predilection in favour of the single star.[24]

This production presented the Chorus as a collection of individuals defined as a group through their shared gender.  Deborah Warner interpreted Euripides’ chorus of Corinthian women as an embracing representation of women through identifiable female types, or indeed stereotypes. The Chorus was composed of eight women of different age, class and nationality: an eclectic group of neighbours visiting Medea to sympathise with her plight (one member held a cake which she offered to Medea in a futile gesture of empathy).  The individuality of each chorus member was signalled through variations in costuming and verbal pronunciation made clear by the single-voice delivery.[25] The Chorus was all dressed in modern garb suitable to their respective ages, nationalities and social positions.  From twin sets to hipster jeans, from the reserved home-counties Received Pronunciation to soncy Scottish audacity, the chorus was physically and aurally a collection of individuals.[26]  It is possible, however, to question whether a chorus of representative types actually succeeds as a definitive representation of a gender.  It could be argued that this method of presenting a chorus plays to stereotypes of age, class and nationality.  Indeed, it may be that the composition of the chorus encouraged an identification of female ‘type’ by the audience, a feature which may possibly be considered reductive and in danger of being patronising.

The individualising impetus also extended to the identification of different characters within the chorus ensemble.  The chorus member who offered a cake showed herself to be the sort of person who responds to a crisis with gifts of food (the soap opera wife who responds to the abandonment of a neighbour with a casserole comes to mind).  Furthermore, the chorus responded to the appearance of Creon like a collection of frightened hens, yet it was the soncy Scots lassie who momentarily plucked up the courage to challenge him, nervously pointing at him whilst her chorus friends called her away and tried to hush her insurrection. This was an interpretation, which, however unintentional, verged on racial stereotyping, especially since in the chorus’ announcement of Creon’s entry there is no textual evidence to support this interpretation. The inescapable fact is that Euripides’ chorus does not suggest individualism; their gender and their shared concerns unite the Corinthian women, so there is no textual evidence to support individuated characters.  By incorporating individual characterisation into the performance through costuming and choreography, the ‘characters’ appear two-dimensional: stereotypes that are based on assumptions of age, class and nationality.  The irony of this is that the individual characterising of the chorus based on stereotypes does not create genuine individualism, but categorisation and reduction to type. 

Given that the chorus was composed of individual characters, this raises problems over wider group motivation.  During the performance, the chorus engaged in whole group action.  At key points, the chorus would scatter in panic, jumping on plinths of building material.  There seemed no textual or histrionic logic to this behaviour: in a naturalistic production, how realistic is it to run and jump on gyp rock whilst lamenting the position of women?  And would all these women behave in exactly the same way?  Would the stereotype of a middle-class, home-counties woman suddenly feel the urge to jump on building materials? The action and the image were unconvincing. Furthermore, the chorus members in their interaction with each other all engaged in periods of female supportive/bonding behaviour: gently stroking each other’s hair, hugging each other, touching each other for reassurance.  Again it has to be asked whether it is realistic that these categories of women would all chose to behave in this manner?

The fragmented characterisation of the chorus also raised problems for their relationship with Medea.  It is often noted that Euripides’ Medea stresses her foreignness, her alienation from the environment she has found herself in.  It is the shared female concern of abandonment and powerlessness that unites the woman from Colchis with the women of Corinth.[27] To communicate this to a modern audience requires a dialectic of ‘otherness’; Medea needs to be different, not just in her capacity for action, but in her very self-identification. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones[28] has raised the point that, because this chorus had no unified identity other than their gender, the production did not explore the ‘otherness’ of Medea.  The discourse and the meta-discourse were at odds; it made little sense that Medea was complaining of being alien when the staging did not indicate any alienation on her part.

Possibly the problem with this chorus lay in the performance’s naturalistic approach.  The chorus, by its very nature, is not a naturalistic device; although the relationship between the named characters can be more convincingly interpreted in this way, to make a chorus naturalistic takes more than a contemporary set and costume design.  In the ‘naturalistic world’, the chorus is in danger of being an embarrassment: the chorus per se underlines the theatricality of a performance.  This is not to say that it is impossible for the chorus to be integrated into a naturalistic performance, but to do so requires the chorus’ role to be fundamentally re-examined. In productions where it has been successful, the chorus’ role is unrecognisable in comparison with the original text.[29] Warner’s Medea aimed to make the character of Medea familiar to the modern audience.[30] But by concentrating on making Medea and her situation so accessible to the modern audience, and by prioritising Fiona Shaw’s interpretation of the role, the chorus was eclipsed and left in the no man’s land that so many choruses are consigned to. 

The final performance to be examined is theatre babel’s production of Liz Lochhead’s adaptation of Medea, directed by Graham McLaren and premiered at the Fruit Market (Glasgow: March 2000).  The runaway success of this production meant that theatre babel’s Medea transferred to the Edinburgh Fringe in successive years (2000-2001), and toured in Scotland, England, Cyprus and India. The production is the largest grossing Fringe production ever; the translation is the fastest selling Euripides translation of Medea in English and has earned Liz Lochhead the prestigious Saltire Award.  Whilst there has been a wealth of reviews, again there are similar problems of research as were found with Warner’s Medea. The reviewers again focus on the interpretation of Medea, although they also consider the translation in greater depth, but the reviews do not comment significantly on the chorus.  This omission is surprising given that, in my opinion, theatre babel’s chorus was visually stunning and theatrically commanding.

In the subsequent revivals, the composition of the chorus changed.  At its premiere theatre babel used a mixed-sex chorus, all in identical attire and make up.  Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones notes how the chorus was attired as eighteenth-century fashion dolls,[31] in grey corseted dresses, but that the male members of the chorus were identifiably male, although dressed as women. From informal pre-production talks with Liz Lochhead it was apparent that she had reservations concerning the mixed-sex chorus, and it is worth remarking that in the revivals an all-female chorus was used.  The identical attire, make-up and hairstyles of the chorus reinforced their similitude and defined them as an entity separate from Medea.  In contrast with Warner’s Medea, theatre babel’s Medea underlined the ‘otherness’ of the eponymous heroine.  In the latter production Maureen Beattie, attired in a scarlet, velvet, Russo-Polish eighteenth-century dress, employed a European refugee accent.  Medea was thus defined as alien through her physical contrast with the chorus, but also through her use of language and pronunciation.  This alienation is indicated in Lochhead’s published text.  She describes Medea before we see her in the following terms: 

From off MEDEA cries out in a voice that is not Scots but a foreigner speaking good        English – an ‘incomer voice’[32]

Medea is, therefore, twice removed: she is a foreigner speaking English which stresses her alienation from her point of origin, but in contrast to the other characters,[33] she speaks in English rather than Lochhead’s hybrid of old and modern Scots, which stresses her alienation further.  At the time of the premiere, this possibly struck a chord with respect to race relations in Glasgow. Glasgow’s willingness to accept refugees and house them in the most deprived areas of the city and the social treatment of refugees was an escalating problem.[34] This wider social problem encouraged levels of understanding of Medea’s relationship with the chorus.  Medea says to the Scots-English speaking chorus:

no one loves a foreigner
everyone despises anyone the least bit different
‘see how she ties her scarf’       ‘that hair           outlandish’
you walked by my house with eyes averted
turned your nose up at my household’s cooking smells
‘why can’t she be a bit more like us?’
say you Greeks[35]

The text may call the chorus Greeks, the costumes may indicate the eighteenth century, but the modernity of the language and the use of Scots make a forcible connection with the alienation of the ‘other’ in twenty-first century Scotland.  The chorus is, therefore, both removed and familiar; as Ruth Hazel establishes, ‘the home team’[36].

The stylised nature of the chorus was further developed through its rigid mechanical movement in choreographed formations. It is this similarity which prioritised the text of the choral odes over their physical characteristics.  In this way, the gender discourse is prioritised and the representation of women as a gender is textually rather than physically communicated.  Consequently, the potential pitfalls of individualisation were avoided by this production.  In contrast with Warner’s Medea, where women as a sex were represented through a variety of types (which, arguably, worked against the inclusiveness of Euripides’ chorus), theatre babel’s chorus achieved a more comprehensive representation of women by not individualising any women.  The appearance and movement of the chorus minimised differences in the age and appearance of the actors, and ultimately the thoughts of the chorus transcended their physicality. The embracing nature of the chorus was emphasised by Lochhead’s text in performance.  Medea’s initially addresses the chorus in the following terms:

ladies of all time            ladies of this place
and others[37]

The “ladies of all time” are clearly the chorus but Lochhead’s lexical choices stress the timelessness that she invests the chorus with. The “ladies of this place” specifically locates the chorus in the dramatic time but, because of the proximity of the chorus to the audience, “this place” stretches across the footlights to include the women of the audience.  The meta-theatricality is marked: “this place” is textually Greece, but meta-theatrically it is the auditorium. 

This attribution raises the question as to who are the ‘others’.  In the performance, Maureen Beattie made a sweeping gesture to the auditorium, which, by acknowledging and playing to the audience, used music-hall techniques to include the audience in the textual discourse.  Given the previous explanations of the sections of the quotation, it is probable that the ‘other’ refers to the men present in the audience.  In this way the text and the performance establish the various dialectics of opposition: resident and foreigner, gender-based inclusion and exclusion, hermetic dramatic world and meta-theatricality.

The group ethos of the chorus was also served by the delivery of the chorus; unison and solo voice delivery worked well together as both were presented in the same mechanical and stylised way. theatre babel’s interpretation of the chorus as a mechanical entity ultimately challenges Hall’s view of an organic chorus.  This unified chorus proved that the power of many voices speaking as one was compelling; although abstract and inhuman, group delivery is certainly no impediment to the audience’s emotional and intellectual understanding of the play.  As with TAG’s Antigone, the choral odes were directed to the audience whereas the episodes were more integrated into the dramatic world.[38] This combination is built into Lochhead’s stage directions: the principle is evident from the chorus’ first stage direction:

(The NURSE does not see, or react with, the CHORUS, their initial communication is to each other and also in unison direct to the audience.)[39]

 The chorus was again able to share the same world as the audience, provoking an intellectual assessment of the play, and to use that assessment in the evaluation of the episodes. The direct address to the audience and the stylised nature of the chorus constantly underlined the formal nature of the chorus, and, therefore, the theatricality of the production.  The formality of the chorus could be considered as an alienating device,[40] but this did not prevent emotional engagement with the play.  Indeed, the success of this production lay in the fact that the performers succeeded in conveying the emotional force of the Medea combined with an intellectual distance, which promoted audience analysis of the gender discourse.

The chorus is one of the greatest challenges to performing Greek tragedy; it is removed from our wider theatrical experience and its form and functions accentuates the theatricality of the genre.  Our unfamiliarity with choral drama encourages experimentation and innovation and the innovative and varied way in which all of these productions have presented the chorus bear testament to the imagination of each production’s creative team.  Ultimately, without the same presentational modes and structure of ancient performance, modern British theatre can reinvent the nature of the chorus as best fits the rationale of each production.  The varied nature of the performances discussed above shows that it is difficult to postulate a watertight theory of trends in choral performance as each production is a separate creative entity.  Certainly this discussion does not propose that there is a correct or definitive way to present a chorus: artistic freedom and experimentation are prized more than an adherence to structured forms.  It is perhaps safe to consider that in some productions our focus on the individual in the theatre can result in the privileging of individual voices, choreography and costuming, which radically reinterprets the chorus as a collective body.  Whether the individualising impetus responds to a focus on the protagonists or an individual chorus figure, it plays to modern sympathies for the individual rather than for the collective.  This, however, should not be taken to mean that a unified group chorus - the mechanical rather than the organic chorus - is out of place on the modern stage.  theatre babel’s unified chorus challenged Hall’s view that a mechanical chorus is “certainly no aid either to understanding or to the provocation of the listener’s imagination”, as the production, without doubt, facilitated understanding and provoked the imagination. It cannot be ignored, it cannot be side-stepped: individual or collective, meeting the challenge of the chorus is part of the vibrant theatrical experience that Greek tragedy should be.

[1] An earlier version of this article was first delivered at the Classical Association’s Conference 2002 at the University of Edinburgh. I would like also to acknowledge the assistance of the following: Prof. Ian Brown (QMUC), Prof. Lorna Hardwick (Open), Dr Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (Open), Dr Douglas Cairns (Glasgow), Dr Paul Innes (Glasgow) and Dr Ian Ruffell (Glasgow).

[2] ‘Greek Tragedy on the Scottish Stage’ held by The Centre for the Greek and Roman World and the Department of Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow on the 10th May 2002.  Taking part in the discussion was also James Brining the Artistic Director of TAG who confirmed the interpretation of the Antigone determined in the interview with Struan Leslie.

[3] Although there are several published discussions between Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw. See ‘Sympathy for the devil’, The Guardian, 30 January 2001, 14; satirised ih the three-way discussion with Bel Littlejohn ‘At  home with Medea’, the Guardian, 2 February 2002. Both these discussions focus entirely on the role of Medea and Medea’s relationship with Jason, rather than on the role of the chorus thus reveaing the ‘star’ emphasis in recent productions..

[4] P. Hall, Exposed by the Mask,London, Oberon Books, 2000, 31.

[5] This point was established by Cathy Boyd who justified her choice of Sophocles’ Electra with respect to timelessness: “I think the story lines are so amazing and they are timeless.  You read the stories and they are relevant today…human beings inside have not changed; but in a way that is a real comforting aspect, to think that human beings, mankind, whatever we look back at, our emotions are still the same, our needs are still the same, actual family relationships are still the same.  That is what attracted me to Electra: anyone who has suffered a mourning, a loss, been in mourning for a parent can immediately connect with that work.” Interview with Cathy Boyd, Glasgow, May 2000.

[6] An expanded version of the discussion of TAG’s Antigone is available in A. Burke, ‘Totalitarianism, Martyrdom and Social Resistance’ International Journal of Scottish Theatre Vol.2 no.1 June 2001, available online at

[7]According to the TAG press release “Making the Nation is a four year theatre and participatory drama project aimed at actively engaging young people in Scotland with the democratic process, coinciding with the launch of the Scottish Parliament.” Full details of the brief are available from TAG Theatre Company, E-mail:

[8] The focus on the chorus was discussed by Robert Thomson, ‘Antigone, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow’, The Herald, September 2000, 23, who commented: “In this version, the renaming could go along the lines of “Chorus”.  In Woods’ play, the role of questioner and commentator falls to one individual, an itinerant figure who seems somewhat taken aback to have the role of commoner-confidant thrust upon him by this royal house…It does make for an approachable, identifiable Chorus: crucial for a play that is dominated by discourse and argument rather than action.”

[9] Interview with Rob Adams, ‘Conflict that echoes across the ages’, The Herald, 29th August 2000,18.

[10] In an interview conducted by the author in Glasgow on the 28th August 2000, Struan Leslie categorised these gestures into five main groups: law, city, state (oratory derived movements); justice and death (released hand and covering of eyes); family home and hearth (hand striking breast); light and life (open hand help upwards) and darkness (hand covering the head).  With respect to the gestures associated with law, city and state, Leslie noted an influence derived from modern political figures; for example, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

[11] Clare Venables discusses her approach to the Electra in an interview with Ann Donald ‘There’s no soft soap about it’, The Herald, 12 August 1999.

[12] For a personal account of the reception Theatre Cryptic’s Electra received see Kate Dickie (Electra) ‘All the world’s her stage’, The Herald, 4 May, 2000, 15.

[13] For a discussion of the original staging of Electra  see the Open University database: The Reception of the Texts and Images of Ancient Greece in Late Twentieth-Century Drama and Poetry in English, Production ID 1115,

[14] Interview with Cathy Boyd, Glasgow, May 2000.

[15] Ruth Hazel notes that the “Greek tragic chorus is so culturally different from what a twentieth-century English audience is used to in everyday life and entertainment that the director has to find ways to interpret it”, 219.  R. Hazel “ ‘....and a chorus of Corinthian women...’ : Use of the Chorus in recent productions of Euripides Medea” in (edd.) L. Hardwick and S. Ireland, Selected Proceedings of the January Conference : The Reception of Classical Texts and Images Milton Keynes, 1996, 218-231. Also on-line at

[16] On the meaning of praxis and muthos in Aristotle’s Poetics as applied to Tragedy see J. Jones, On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy, Chattos & Windus, London, 1962, 24-6.

[17] This is certainly not a view that I would share.  Although there may have been a reduction in the chorus’ role which accompanied the rise of the actor, the chorus remained a staple part of tragic performance.

[18] Interview with Cathy Boyd, Glasgow, May 2000.

[19] Interview with Cathy Boyd, Glasgow, May 2000.

[20] Interview with Cathy Boyd, Glasgow, May 2000.

[21] The following discussion refers to the London staging of Warner’s Medea.

[22] Jane Montgomery reviewing Warner’s Medea and Medea in Performance examines the cult of the performer with reference to Shaw’s Medea.  She writes, “This cult is visibly at work in Deborah Warner’s production.  On the poster, Fiona Shaw is given top billing above Medea.  Both names are in the same typeface and size.”, ‘Every quiet suburban wife’, TLS, 23 March 2001, 20.

[23] Medea as a star vehicle for has long been recognised.  For a full discussion of this see (edd) E. Hall, F. Macintosh,  O. Taplin, Medea in Performance, Oxford, Legenda, 2000, passim.  The point is made succinctly by Macintosh when she states: “given the avowed theatricality of both the Euripidean and Senecan models, it is hardly surprising that her persona has served as a vehicle for established star performers and as a means of creating new stars.  It has often been speculated that Euripides’ Medea of 431…was written with a particular actor in mind.  And the performance history of the play from AD 1500 to 2000 may well lend credence to such speculation, with the role-call of those associated with the part of Medea reading like an account of the leading actresses and opera singers in European theatre history…” , 3.

[24] Compare the similarly marketed Diana Rigg Medea at the Almeida (London, 1992), which again focused on the leading actor rather than the company or the director. For a discussion of the chorus in this production see R. Hazel (1996) op,cit., 228. Clearly Peter Hall’s productions of the Oresteia, The Oedipus plays and the Bacchae are an exception to this, but given Hall’s focus on the chorus, his exception is the point that proves the rule. The real contrast is with theatre babel’s Medea, which was marketed in terms of the company rather than with specific reference to Maureen Beattie as Medea.  Indeed, during the revivals the programme cover changed from a picture of Beattie to a picture of the female chorus.

[25] A point that encouraged John Peter to write: “The chorus suffers too which is bad, given that it is more important dramatically than in many of Euripides’s plays: the lines are distributed to individual speakers phrase by phrase, sometimes word by word, as if it were a workshop exercise in the early stages.  This is also unfair on the translation…which is both idiomatic and poetic, jagged and cohesive.” ‘Bleak tragedy’, The Sunday Times (Culture), 4 February, 2001, 17.

[26] Jane Montgomery commented on the eclectic nature of the chorus:  “The chorus comes across as little more than a random assortment of women plucked from the No.19 bus”, ‘Every quiet suburban wife’, TLS, 23 March 2001, 20.

[27] See further, R. Hazel, 1996 op. cit: “The chorus must be credible in the variety of its comments and the flexibility of its sympathy, and normal must not mean neutral or boring. While sharing female nature with Medea, the chorus represents, as it were, the 'home team' to Medea's otherness” 227.

[28] Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones personal communication.

[29] It is a personal view, but arguably, one of the most successful naturalistic choruses was staged by the Marjanishvili State Academic Theatre’s production of a Georgian version of Anouilh's Antigone, which used a single unobtrusive male figure to form the chorus.  For further production details see the Open University database: The Reception of the Texts and Images of Ancient Greece in Late Twentieth-Century Drama and Poetry in English, Production ID 2603,

[30] Bell Littlejohn’s spoof interview with Deborah Warner satirised the interest in the modern accessibility of Medea, “It’s very much the story of Ivana Trump and if you look hard enough you can see the whole Hilary Clinton/Monica Lewinsky thing in there too.” ‘At home with Medea’, Guardian, 2 February 2002.

[31] The Reception of the Texts and Images of Ancient Greece in Late Twentieth-Century Drama and Poetry in English database, MedeaProduction ID 2593,

[32] L. Lochhead,  Medea, London, Nick Hern Books, 2000, 6.

[33] The accents of the characters is stressed by Lochhead in her opening stage directions: “The people of this country all have Scots accents, their language varies from Scots to Scots-English – from time to time and from character to character – and particular emotional state of character.” L. Lochhead,  Medea, London, Nick Hern Books, 2000, 3.

[34] See W. Tinning,  ‘Glasgow fears grow as influx of asylum seekers begins’, The Herald, 3 March 2000, 12, and ‘Racist leaflets attack city's asylum seekers’, The Herald, 22 March 2000, 5.

[35] L. Lochhead,  Medea, London., Nick Hern Books, 2000, 9.

[36] R. Hazel (1996) op,cit ,p.227.

[37] L. Lochhead,  Medea, London., Nick Hern Books, 2000, 7.

[38] However, the episodes were played more to the gallery than in TAG’s Antigone, a point which is implied by Michael Billington: “Maureen Beattie endows Medea with…an unusual degree of complicity with the audience.  Informing us that women wronged in bed will “have your guts for garters”, she reaches out to the front row with a terrifying balls-crunching gesture.” ‘Arts: Edinburgh festival: The ball-breakers’, The Guardian, 7 August, 2000, 15.

[39] L. Lochhead,  Medea,London, Nick Hern Books, 2000, 7.

[40] A similar point is made by Jan McDonald with reference to Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off: “…Liz Lochhead in particular highlights the process of representation itself by consistently employing alienation devices that underline the theatricality rather than the mimetic realism of the drama.”. J. McDonald, ‘Scottish Women Dramatists since 1945’ in A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan (edd), Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997, 510.