By Christine Plastow
Theatre, an art form and industry that has traditionally relied on the gathering of a (sometimes large) group of people in close quarters, has naturally been hit hard by the global coronavirus crisis. Not only productions but rehearsals and development sessions have had to be cancelled or postponed, and many theatre professionals are still out of work. There have been some benefits for audiences: for example, the National Theatre has been freely broadcasting a number of recordings from its back catalogue on YouTube. These recordings have opened up major productions to viewers who may otherwise never have seen them. But what about smaller theatres and companies, new work, and the ‘liveness’ that is, in many ways, intrinsic to the medium of theatre?
I’ve been a member of feminist theatre collective By Jove Theatre Company since 2011; in that time, we’ve developed several innovative productions that rework old stories (myths, legends, stories from the cultural canon) for modern audiences. When we realised that our audience was likely to be unable to attend in-person performances for a while, we decided to begin working with the possibilities that performing in the digital space offers. As is so often the case, we were drawn to Greek tragedy for our content. The narrative form of Greek tragedy deals with the moments of crisis in longer mythic narratives: each play tells a story almost in real-time, with characters forced to confront their own actions or those of others that have, almost always, led to death. This form seemed particularly apt for the moment of a global pandemic; indeed, Theatre of War’s digital Oedipus Project has already touched on that play’s backdrop of plague and pestilence as the most obvious touchstone for recent events.
In June and July we produced two digital performances, one live and one pre-recorded. Both dealt with powerful women from Greek mythology who commit acts of violence against their children; both evoke themes of community and isolation, the struggle for liberation and the consequences of women’s repression. The first was MEDEA LIVE, a new digital staging of playwright Wendy Haines’ retelling of Euripides’ Medea first performed by the company in 2017. Our digital staging saw the original performers reprise their roles—three actors performing three aspects of Medea—but perform live to webcam in their own homes in the middle of lockdown. This was more than a rehearsed reading, however: director David Bullen used the capabilities of the streaming platform Streamyard to move the Medeas around the screen, with blank screens appearing for the voices of Jason and other characters that are not embodied; the Medeas seemed to be circling, trapped in an inescapable situation and closing in on acts of terrible violence. Meanwhile, performers SJ Brady, Sinead Costelloe, and Rosa Whicker moved around their performance spaces, sometimes closer to the camera and sometimes further away, offering a tantalising glimpse into the private space of Medea’s unhappy home. The performance was followed by a post-show discussion with theatre and classics academics and practitioners; both are still available to view on YouTube (with closed captions available for both performance and discussion).
Our second production was HERE SHE COMES, a epic spoken word retelling of Euripides’ Bacchae from the perspective of Agave, written and performed by SJ Brady with music by Vivienne Youel. This production was generously funded by the Institute of Classical Studies Public Engagement Grant. The production was audio only, and so we opted to present a pre-prepared recording to ensure the best audio quality for listeners. The recording was premiered on YouTube, alongside a slideshow prepared by SJ Brady that complemented the poem and evoked its themes and settings. Although Bacchae is another work of Greek tragedy, Brady’s work is designed more closely to evoke the ancient oral poets who performed long tales such as the Iliad and Odyssey; Brady performs the text solo, from memory, focusing on Agave but giving voice to a range of characters and utilising repeated linguistic motifs that intertwine with Vivenne Youel’s hypnotic music. The show is available to listen to on YouTube and Soundcloud, with a recording of the live post-show discussion also available on YouTube; David Bullen (By Jove Co-artistic Director; Theatre Studies, Royal Holloway) and I also produced an educational podcast to accompany the production that is available on YouTube and Soundcloud. All YouTube versions have closed captions available.
You can keep up to date with By Jove on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The company receives no regular public funding, and so relies on supporters to help them make art, especially in these difficult times for the theatre industry. If you’re interested in supporting the company, you can become a regular patron on our Patreon, or if you enjoy the shows, please consider making a donation – we recommend £5, the price of a cheap theatre ticket.