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  4. Alison Burke: Interviews in classical performance research: journalistic interviews

Alison Burke: Interviews in classical performance research: journalistic interviews

Analysing modern classical texts in performance is an interdisciplinary activity which requires a re-thinking of methodological approaches.  As classical studies have embraced reception studies,[2] interest in modern productions of Greek plays has grown and developed, but a revised methodology is needed to ensure that the critical approaches to the subject matter respond to the interdisciplinary nature of performance analysis of classical texts.  Two assumptions underpin this paper: that practitioners’ intentions are held to be important in the evaluation of the theatrical event; and that those intentions can be recovered through a process of interviewing.   Broadly speaking interviews take two forms, academic and journalistic, and it is with respect to the latter that this paper is focused.[3]  My critical position is that journalistic interviews are subject to a set of limitations that must be appreciated in order to evaluate the information they contain.  Furthermore, for information to be used effectively by the theatre researcher, the intentions that underpin the interview need to be understood as determining factors.  The aims of this paper are: to set journalistic interviews within a wider methodology; to consider the value of interview evidence and to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the interview process through analysis of the relationship of intent (mutual promotion) that characterises the interviewer/interviewee relationship.  An analysis of several examples of interviews is included to support the critical position, namely, that the intentions of practitioners, journalists and publishers combine to contribute to a preferred reading which need not be accepted uncritically by the researcher.   

A methodology of production analysis is difficult to determine. The traditional methodological approach (rigorous desk study of the text, material evidence and secondary criticism) has been used to evaluate Greek dramatic texts within their production environment, as works of literature in their own right and as evidence of social, political, cultural values. However, this is only a starting point for performance analysis which must also include the shaping of the performance by the production team. Therefore, in order to progress from a textual analysis to performance text analysis, a more flexible research model is needed. As the area of production analysis is subject to the transitory nature of performance, establishing primary evidence on which to justify a critical interpretation is problematic.  Therefore, the study of a live theatrical event needs to generate its own primary evidence in order to provide a ‘text’ of the performance that can be analysed and subjected to varying interpretations by other researchers. Journalistic interviews can be considered as constituting primary evidence that survives the production’s run: the communication in print of the intentions underlying a production provides a testament of intent against which, and in light of which, the process of production analysis can begin.

The value of journalistic interviews is that they can provide a medium by which practitioners can explain their intentions in the performance.  The unique feature of interviews (academic and journalistic) is that they provide the opportunity for theatre practitioners to elucidate the creative process.  This is valuable because, for effective performance analysis to take place, the critic needs to be aware of the creative process through which a theatrical production is given life.[4]  In performance analysis, the final performance as it appears on stage is an end product, but the creative process by which a production gets to the stage is as important as the performance itself.  The decisions of the production team (director and costume/lighting/set designers) and the motivation of actors determined throughout the rehearsal process are not usually documented; therefore, interviews with the practitioners can fill that gap.  Moreover, performance analysis is often based on personal witness: the researcher watches the production and then frames his/her analysis in response.  However, the human eye cannot register everything that happens on stage simultaneously, so aspects of the production can be missed. Futhermore, memory is not infallible, so confusion can arise as to the layout/use of the set, for example.[5] Because of the subjective nature of personal witness, researchers and reviewers can interpret the production as a consequence of personal interest/knowledge base.  All these factors impinge on the reliability of performance analysis, but, depending on the range and scope of the interview, the responses of the practitioners can provide another layer of evidence to enrich the critical response.

Journalistic interviews, however, are not a neutral method of data collection as the media interview process is circumscribed by a relationship of intent: a symbiotic relationship exists between the media and the theatre that is predicated on the basis of mutual promotion.  The interview as a preview has distinct aims: it promotes the production, the interviewee, the publication and, to a greater or lesser extent, the interviewer.  The promotion of the production is achieved through the promotion of the practitioner; because the act of being interviewed assumes superior knowledge on behalf of the practitioner, the respondent is defined as ‘Elite’ and is, therefore, invested with authority.[6]  In journalistic interviews, inside knowledge of the production can present the practitioner as an authority on the text as well as the production.   What needs to be borne in mind, however, is that the concept of authority aims at promoting the production to the readers, who are positioned as a potential audience. The practitioner, by being represented as an authority on the theatrical event and the play text, advertises the production and ‘legitimises’ the production’s interpretation.  In a positive sense, the practitioner’s comments allow for a clear statement of intent, albeit influenced by the role that he/she has in the production: an actor’s statement of intent may be quite significantly different from a director’s.  The practitioner’s motive, however, may prevent a critical distance: the promotion of the production’s interpretation of a play precludes a discussion of variant readings of the text and other possible theatrical approaches.  Therefore, for the information gained from a practitioner in a journalistic interview to be useful, it needs to be understood as the presentation of the production’s ‘party line’, which need not be accepted uncritically by the researcher.

Journalistic interviews also promote the publication in which they appear.  The very process of interviewing is based on the illusion of intimacy and privilege: the publication in which the interview appears suggests to its target readership that, by reading the interview, the reader gains a coveted access to a restricted and charmed circle.  This element of privilege serves to promote the publication as it is through purchasing the newspaper/magazine that this access is gained.  Furthermore, the marketing of authority and knowledge augments this prized access: by presenting the practitioner as an authority, the publication suggests to its readership that, as potential audience members, they will be in a greater position of knowledge.  Again this promotion is double edged.  Positively, journalists can gain admittance to theatrical circles that may prove difficult to the independent researcher, but negatively, the positioning of the practitioner as an authority does not promote a critical approach, but uses an interactionalist method in order to support and enhance rather than analyse the practitioner’s responses.[7]

 The journalistic interview supports the concept of authority by fusing the practitioner with the production, for example, actors and their roles become inextricably linked; therefore, the text becomes re-defined through the actor’s psyche, which supports and privileges a modern context for ancient drama.  The readership then participate in this process as they are encouraged to accept the practitioner’s interpretation of the play and understand the cultural and historical context of the play in light of prevailing modern attitudes: simply, the past is reinvented in light of the present through the practitioner’s experience.  According to David Silverman:

The media aim to deliver us immediate ‘personal’ experience.  Yet what they (we) want is simple repetition of familiar tales.  Perhaps this is part of the post-modern condition.  Maybe we feel people are at the most authentic when they are, in effect, reproducing a cultural script.[8]

With respect to the performance of ancient drama, the inclusion of ancient texts into the modern theatrical repertoire is usually justified on the basis that the Greek plays speak to the universal human condition and are, therefore, relevant to the modern world.  The concept of relevance in journalistic interviews, however, can be interpreted as the redefinition of the ancient text in light of modern opinions.  Therefore, the practitioner’s appeal to a modern ‘cultural script’ also endorses a ‘legitimate’ view of the text that is dependent on an assumed continuity of meaning from the past to the present. Furthermore, aiming to deliver “‘personal’ experience”, not only assumes continuity of meaning, but also supports the merging of the actor with the character or the director with the dramatic interpretation.  Personal experience implies insight, which, rightly or wrongly, suggests authority.  Consequently, once again, the merging of the practitioner with his/her role coupled with suggested continuity of meaning from past to present, legitimises the interview process by implying that the interviewee has authoritative insight into the text.  

The promotion of the publication and the production also rests on the collusion of the interviewer. Increasingly the interviewer’s role is not to take an objective investigative stance, but to support the production and reinforce the commerce between the publication and its market share. This can be achieved in several ways.  If the interview as published expunges the voice of the interviewer, the interviewer still undertakes an editing process that privileges information that is held to be key to promoting the production and of interest to the target readership.  Similarly, if the voice of the interviewer is maintained, then the critical position of the interviewer is interactionalist rather than interrogative. That is, it is supportive of the production and the market position of the publication. In essence, the danger is that media interviews simply confirm rather than investigate. Altheide, for example, considers that the development of journalist interviewing has progressed in a manner that simply reinforces the position of the interviewee:

Media logic has transformed journalistic interviewing from what was primarily a “discovering” or “information gathering” enterprise into an aspect of entertainment.  As journalistic practices and perspectives as well as entertainment formats became more widely understood, the line separating journalists from their interviewees began to fade.  One consequence was that interviews began to be set up to complement the interviewees’ own messages and emphasis.[9]

Journalistic interviews with theatre practitioners could be considered as presenting a closed loop of meaning so that the interview always remains safe by never challenging expectations.  Moreover, the mutual reinforcement of the publication and the production means that there is no critical voice, and the rush to validate can result in the trivialising of the themes of the original text.  Indeed, without a critical voice, the published media interview runs the risk of becoming a weak dramatic commentary that cynically flatters its readership whilst engaging in a symbiotic promotion of the production and publication. 

Example 1: Paul Taylor ‘Fatal attraction: in bed with Medea’, The Independent, 17 January 2001, p.12.

Paul Taylor’s interview with Fiona Shaw and Jonathan Cake (Medea and Jason in Deborah Warner’s Medea) is an example of the interview process being used as a vehicle for the promotion of the interviewer, the newspaper and the theatrical production. The relationship of intent, in this instance, is explored through an examination of the following journalistic codes and conventions: the preferred reading established by the title, strap line and image; the context that the interview is given in order to validate the information and analysis contained in Taylor’s article; the positioning of the audience in relation to the allusions and comparisons drawn by the interviewer; the selection of information generated by the interview schema and the interviewees’ responses.  What will be seen, is that the necessity for mutual promotion requires the interviewees to be presented as authoritative with respect to the original text and the interpretation of the production.  In this instance, authority is conveyed through merging the identity of the actors with their characters.  Furthermore, in this interview, the presentation of the actors and characters as one suggests continuity of meaning from the past to the present and assumes that the themes and issues of Medea can be expressed using celebrity culture as a modern referent.  Continuity from the past to the present also prepares for the interpretation of gender conflict in the play and lays the groundwork for the assumption that this production, in this day and age, ‘correctly’ responds to the meaning of Euripides’ play. 

The concept of authority in the interview is achieved by merging the actors with their roles.  In Taylor’s interview this is established by the process of preferred reading and by the fusion of the actors’ behaviour, appearance and skill with the characters they play. Taylor’s article is dominated by Jack Hill’s photograph of Shaw and Cake in what appears to be the theatre’s Green Room.  The central position of the photograph eclipses the text and title; therefore, the text is read with reference to the dominant image.  The image itself uses a shallow depth of field in order to focus the viewer’s gaze on the eyes of Shaw, who gazes back at the viewer.  The light in the photograph then draws the eye to Cake, who, although occupying the same amount of space as Shaw, is in less sharp focus and looks at Shaw rather than at the viewer. The intimacy of Cake’s gaze at Shaw and his Brando-like posture and clothes suggests a sexual aspect to their interaction in the photograph and Shaw’s direct gaze at the viewer, set within the normally restricted area of the Green Room, affords the illusion of intimacy between audience and interviewees.  This reading of the image is supported by the unusual discussion of the photograph in the text.  Taylor, establishing the context of the interview, writes:

Because the director needs him for notes, I am to interview Cake separately, but before that, I’m allowed to observe the two of them being photographed for this piece.  With her quick, depreciating Irish wit, Shaw keeps up a steady flow of bantering mock-abashment at the thought of being snapped alongside this gleaming hunk. (“Jonathan is mythological in shape, isn’t he?” she said earlier.)

 In this description, Taylor takes the reader ‘behind the scenes’ of the interview, which supports the theory that the reader is allowed access to the real world behind the stage illusion: into a private space occupied by the theatre celebrities.  The idea of being ‘allowed to observe’ this ‘intimate’ moment further enhances the idea of being admitted (and thereby privileged) to a private sphere.  The illusion of intimacy also embraces the suggestion of sexual frisson between the leading actors.  This is not to suggest that the article plays on a physical affair, but that the evident crackling sexual flirtation lends authority to Shaw and Cake’s performances as Medea and Jason, which thereby promotes the production.  Therefore, the authority of the interview rests, in part, on the collision/separation of the actors with/from their roles. Shaw and Cake’s comments as actors about the production’s interpretation of the play are lent authority based upon their understanding of the roles, but authority is also suggested by fusing the identity of the actor with the role.  In the image this is achieved by presenting them as a couple,[10] and in the preferred reading of title and image, Shaw is presented as both actress and Medea.  

The collision of actor and role is then anchored as a premise in the ‘hook’ paragraph that opens the article.  Taylor states:

Having witnessed Deborah Warner’s searching production in its first incarnation, last summer, at the Abbey, Dublin, I’m aware that Shaw will be seeing me directly after having put herself through the mother and father of all mangles.  So I suddenly feel about as sensitive as someone waiting to shove a microphone in the face of a major road-accident casualty.

Taylor’s anxiety could be considered more than a rhetorical sensitivity.  In establishing the emotional impact on Shaw of performing Medea, Taylor prepares the groundwork for the fusion of Shaw with Medea in order to lend authority to her responses in the interview. Moreover, by establishing the ‘emotional truth’ of Shaw’s interpretation of the character, Taylor also promotes the production: simply, the production is worth seeing because of Shaw’s performance.

Taylor’s article is also noteworthy as it fulfils a number of functions: interview, preview and review.  Taylor’s authority to interview Shaw and Cake is derived from his prior witness of the production.  As the production transferred from the Abbey (Dublin) to the Queen’s (London), Taylor, having seen the production at the Abbey, is able to present a critical response to the production, whilst previewing, and thereby promoting, the London production.[11]  Taylor, in providing the context for the interview, establishes in the ‘hook’ paragraph that he has already seen the production in Ireland, therefore, the interview is informed by his previous critical response.  This context supports the positive review in the strap line that the production is ‘Deborah Warner’s sensational version of Euripides’.  Consequently, the production receives promotion for the London debut and affirmation as a result of the previous run, and the interviewer’s prior experience validates his role. 

The promotion of the interviewer also rests on the interviewer’s relationship with the reader.  In this instance Taylor operates as a mediator between the interviewees and the reader, filtering, analysing and contextualising the interview process.  In order to undertake this role the interviewer positions the reader by establishing a shared frame of reference, which is understood by the reader, and in so doing, defines the target audience. Taylor displays his knowledge in a series of comparisons which provide modern counterparts in order to support the assumption that Medea is a play of universal interest. The manner in which Taylor displays his knowledge further contributes to the shaping and defining of the target audience.  Taylor defines the reader through assumptions made about the reader’s geographic location, class, and literary/cultural knowledge base. With respect to geographic location, Taylor assumes that the reader is London-based and that the bank of the reader’s theatrical experience is London-centric.  This is evident when Taylor, establishing Cake’s macho credentials to play Jason, alludes to his previous performance:

Jonathan Cake, the actor who recently wowed audiences with his strapping frame and teasing sexual confidence in Tennessee Williams’s steamy, tongue-in-cheek Baby Doll at the National Theatre.[12]

In this comment Taylor establishes his own credentials, in that he displays a wider theatrical knowledge, whilst characterising his readership as being able (geographically and economically) to attend a London-based production.  also identifies the class of the readership as educated and refined.  In his physical description of Cake he implies a shared class-based knowledge:When in comes to achieving his political ambitions, Medea’s asylum-seeking husband has all the advantages of a glamorous Olympic hero, and Cake, who is a Cambridge rugby Blue, is ideally cast to project this allure.

Taylor assumes that his audience are familiar with the colours awarded to the Cambridge University rugby team when they play Oxford University, which assumes and displays a class-based knowledge and re-inscribes the prejudice that the ‘body beautiful’, class and a glorified view of the classical past are all interrelated.  Taylor’s observation works on an assumption of shared values related to privilege and belief in the pursuit of excellence (physical and intellectual) that finds its counterpart in the mythologised view of the classical past.  Moreover, Taylorre-figures Jason as an Olympic hero which is reductive of the complexity of Euripides’ characterisation. Taylor does this in order to link the vision of the Olympic hero with his implied definition of ideal masculinity and the ‘British elite’, which, by association, according to Taylor, are those who participate in the Oxford/Cambridge sporting/intellectual culture.Taylor also displays his literary knowledge and invites his audience to participate in a self-congratulatory game of understand the literary comparison.  Shaw becomes a  ‘bony and brainily beautiful Virginia Woolf’, Cake is a ‘fresh Steve Redgrave’, Medea and Jason become ‘Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’, and, in order to show an awareness of contemporary figures, Barbara and Boris Becker are presented as a modern comparison. This process of comparisons develops the tripartite relationship of intent: the publication is promoted by flattering the literary/cultural knowledge of the target audience, the interviewer is promoted through a display of belonging and the production is promoted by being associated with the ‘glitterati’ of the literary/theatrical/celebrity worlds.  

The purpose of this string of comparisons to literary and public figures supports the assumption that Euripides’Medea is relevant to the modern world.  In the interview, celebrity culture is considered to be an appropriate modern referent for the relationship between Medea and Jason. The position is not argued critically by Taylor, but is presented as an assumption to be accepted. The interview schema begins with the question ‘why now?’ Taylor reports Shaw’s answer in the following terms:

Partly, reveals Shaw, because our current fame-obsessed culture makes the world of drama peculiarly accessible to a modern audience.

And in order to develop this observation Taylor quotes Shaw’s analysis of Jason and Medea’s relationship: ‘This kind of admiring, immodest love affair is what Hello! Magazine is built on.’ What is not clear is whether or not the production sought to utilise public interest in those in the public eye uncritically as justification for the character-based focus of the production’s interpretation.  It is also possible, however, that the production and interview aim at challenging the way in which the media plays to and promotes voyeurism.  In support of this, the reference to Hello! in The Independent, because of the tabloid/broadsheet polarity, could be considered as an attempt to challenge what is presented in the strap-line as celebrity obsession.  If this is the case, then there is a significant irony to the marketing of the production and the justification and presentation of the interview.  The production was marketed as Fiona Shaw’s Medea, which established the production as a star vehicle and thereby promoted the concept of the celebrity rather than challenging it.[13]  Furthermore, the presentation of the interview, prioritising Shaw in the title and photograph, and merging the actor with the character in order to validate the interview, promotes and utilises the principle of the celebrity.  Ultimately, whether or not it was the intention of the interviewer or interviewees, a wider awareness of the production and a critical response to the interview results in the conclusion that the production and the interview, in effect, re-inscribe the very position that they seek to deconstruct.  The lack of clarity in the interview, which leads to this conclusion, arises from the fact that celebrity culture as a modern referent is accepted as an assumption rather than being justified through critical argument, therefore, the appropriateness of the referent is unclear. 

In the interview, celebrity obsession prepares for the discussion of gender and the production’s interpretation of Medea and Jason’s relationship. Shaw and Taylor assert the modern relevance of Euripides’ play by claiming that, in the present ‘post-feminist society’, there exists the capability to appreciate that the faults in the relationship, which precipitate the tragedy, are two-sided.  Medea’s role in the relationship is considered by Shaw to operate as a trap for Jason:

“A woman marries a man and does such favours for him that he can never in good conscience leave her.  I think already that is a subconscious trap.” Shaw argues.  And this new capacity to appreciate the pressures on Jason is the other key reason why now is the right moment forMedea.

Taylor’s willingness to accept this interpretation could be considered as predicated on the flawed premise that prevailing gender politics provide a more appropriate understanding of the gender relations in the text than previous production environments.  The premise is flawed as it collapses history: the article does not give consideration to the vastly different political/social environment into which Medea was originally received.  In contrast, because Taylor’s article operates as a positive review (Abbey production) and preview (London production), the desire to validate the modernising impetus of the performance in effect ignores variant readings of the text.Taylor’s acceptance and promotion of the gender interpretation proffered by Shaw and Cake suggests a specific reading of Euripides’ intentions, but what is presented, however, constitutes a specific thematic interpretation that need not be accepted by the reader uncritically.  

Although Taylor does acknowledge that ‘Medea has been co-opted for many causes’, this critical position is not invoked as an analytical premise for Warner’s interpretation.  Indeed, although Taylor notes the long-standing performance tradition, he does not then consider this production’s interpretation in relation to that performance tradition.  In contrast, Warner’s interpretation is ‘legitimised’ by Taylor through presenting her directorial strategy as coming closer to the ‘spirit’ of the play:

Deborah Warner is renowned for blasting through the encrusted gunk of performance tradition and for being true to the spirit of a classic play by holding the drama to the consequences of its own deepest insights.   

In this statement Taylor aims to promote Warner’s production and endorse her interpretation by distancing her production of Medea from previous ones: the implicit assumption being that Warner’s interpretation and Shaw and Cake’s responses are closer to the intentions of Euripides.  The sub-text of Euripides’ play is then assumed to be concerned with presenting Medea and Jason as eternally locked together in mutual recrimination: both culpable and at fault for the tragic events.  The problem with this interpretation is the ending of the play.  Medea’s exit in her grandfather Helios’ chariot is problematic for the mutually culpable theory, so much so that Warner excised Medea’s divinely assisted exit to Athens.  Consequently, what is considered to be getting back to the ‘spirit’ of the play, actually means changing the play.  It is possible to argue that changing the ending of the play in order to privilege the production’s interpretation is not problematic in itself.  What is problematic, however, is the assertion that to do so is more true to the ‘spirit’ of the play, rather than the ‘spirit’ of the production. In his analysis, Taylor ignores the issues around adapting a text to fit a theoretical interpretation, and side steps the question of whether or not it is our modern fear that the ending justifies the action that causes difficulty with Euripides’ ending. Justification of an ending on the basis that it is more appropriate to the ‘spirit’ of Euripides than the ending Euripides did write exposes the problems in collapsing history and eroding cultural difference.  Forcing Euripides into the mould of modern gender politics in order to appropriate his work for the present does not distinguish Warner’s interpretation, but actually places it firmly in the performance tradition of appropriation and adaptation.  

Taylor’s critical stance ultimately accepts the production’s thematic interpretation and as a consequence he does not maintain a critical distance in order to evaluate the interviewees’ responses, but provides a context in order to promote the production and in the process the publication and himself.  For the purposes of performance research, however, the interview does have value as the interviewees’ responses provide corroborative evidence for the psychological realism and modernising approach of Warner’s production.  Given that information about theatrical productions is ephemeral, the interview provides more concrete evidence of the production’s approach.  In this interview, the fusing of the actor with the role by the interviewer, and the interviewees’ internalising of characters’ motives, augments the process of character inhabitation undertaken in the production.  Furthermore, in the assertion that Euripides’ play is relevant to the modern world, the interview points towards the reason why a modern staging interpretation was utilised.  Although the critical position of the interview may not present it as such, the definition of the sub-text of the play in terms of the lengths to which obsessive desire can lead (in which both parties are culpable), locates the play within a modern frame of reference.  The interview’s focus on Medea and Jason’s relationship, to the exclusion of cultural and historical influences, results from and evidences the production’s interpretation of the play in light of prevailing gender politics, modern presentational modes and a psychological interpretation of character.  In simple terms, the interview provides supporting textual evidence, albeit uncritically, for the transitory theatrical event. 

Example 2: Al Senter ‘Playing God’, What’s On in London, 1st May 2001, p.51.

Al Senter’s interview with the actor Greg Hicks (Dionysus, Teiresias, Servant, in Sir Peter Hall’s production of the Bacchai at the Royal National Theatre, London, 2002) is radically different from Taylor’s interview with the protagonists of Warner’s Medea.  Senter’s interview is presented as a monologue, with the role of the interviewer expunged in order to present Hick’s responses as an uninterrupted speech.  For the purposes of performance research, however, the interview can be examined with reference to the relationship of intent established above.

In this interview, the relationship of intent promotes the production through providing what appears as unmediated access to the practitioner, thereby promoting Hicks as an actor and, consequently, Hall’s production of the Bacchai. Indeed, the primary strength of this interview as a source for theatre research lies in the manner in which the interview allows for the promotion of the production.  Senter’s interview schema begins with asking what attracts Hicks to Greek tragedy and to masked acting.  In the opening ‘hook’ paragraph and subsequent paragraph, Hicks establishes that his attraction to Greek tragedy is,

- because it is a world that never ceases to fascinate and expand me.  Doing these plays takes you into the deepest recesses of your psyche and, from the start, I’ve always felt comfortable in a mask – somehow you become more selfless and this helps you grasp these cosmic emotions.

Here Hicks establishes his personal view that Greek tragedy explores issues of consciousness, whilst implicitly linking the performance of Greek tragedy with masked acting.  He undertakes a similar connection in the second paragraph:

I like the formality of Greek drama.  Yet when I put on a mask, it is not only a piece of formal ritual – my self is diminished and I love the anonymity which a mask brings me.

In these statements, Hicks connects the emotional content of Greek tragedy and the form of the genre with masked acting: his implicit assumption is that performance of Greek tragedy is correctly expressed through masked acting.  Although there is no interviewer’s voice to contextualise and analyse this position, the information cannot be accepted uncritically by the theatre researcher.  Hicks’ interpretation of Greek tragedy is informed by his long-standing involvement with Hall and corresponds to the production style developed by Hall as a consequence of directing the OresteiaThe Oedipus PlaysTantalus and the Bacchai.[14] Hicks’ assumption that acting in Greek tragedy requires masking could be considered derived from Hall’s thesis that the emotion and form of Greek tragedy demand the wearing of masks.[15]  Furthermore, their shared theoretical position may have emerged as a consequence of the fact that all the mask work that Hicks has undertaken has been under Hall’s direction and Hall has cast him repeatedly in all his productions of Greek tragedy.[16]

Hick’s assumption that performing Greek tragedy automatically requires a masked interpretation is, therefore, a personal preference for Hall’s directorial approach and serves to ‘legitimise’ Hall’s direction of the Bacchai, thereby promoting the production. The view that Greek tragedy should automatically be masked is, however, a controversial position.  As there is no interviewer’s voice to provide a critical context to Hicks’ assumption, the theatre researcher needs to place the interview in a wider context.  Hall’s use of masks may now be accepted as his directorial style, but his first masked venture (the Oresteia) polarised reviewers’ responses.  In what became known as ‘the war of the masks’,[17] without exception the reviewers of the Oresteiaapplauded or railed against the use of masks.[18]  Moreover, in more recent times, the gulf that emerged between Barton and Hall in the rehearsals of Tantalus was reportedly a consequence of Hall’s decision to mask an essentially modern dramatic text, albeit a text derived from the extant tragedies, fragments and Epic Cycle. Therefore, what Hicks presents in the interview as the method of performance required by the content and form Greek tragedy, constitutes a personal opinion which results from a collaborative process informed by Hall’s directorial predilection for utilising ancient stage conventions.

Although Hicks’ position in the interview supports Hall’s direction, Hicks also discusses his own interpretation of movement and choreography: 

I’m also passionate about working on stage and going right to the limits of what my body can do.  I study Japanese movement and Brazilian martial art and that has helped me use my body as a means of expression.  A mere hand gesture can convey a mile of meaning – even the tips of the fingers can be extraordinarily eloquent.

As the interview operates on one level as a preview, Hicks’ discussion of movement provides the readership with a tantalising glimpse into what the audience can expect at the production.  The ‘exoticness’ of Hicks’ physical influences could be considered provocative of the readership (and potential audience members’) curiosity, so Hicks implicitly ‘sells’ the production.  He also privileges the potential audience by providing them with information with which they can decode his performance.  There is, however, the implicit assumption that the potential audience will understand and respond to the meaning of gesture derived from another performance culture, and that the minutiae of meaning can be discerned.  This assumption establishes Hicks’ authority over his own performance (he determines his own influences) and his authority in the interview (his explanation informs the reader).  Furthermore, to place Hicks’ movement in a wider context, Hall’s directorial style could be described as presenting the text to the audience; stage choreography and interpretation through physical movement have presented a challenge to Hall’s direction.  Indeed, Hall has been somewhat suspicious of physically based interpretations, considering that movement detracts from the text.[19]   Consequently, Hick’s discussion of movement evidences his personal contribution as an actor and the reader would be better positioned to appreciate this if he/she had a wider knowledge of Hall and Hicks' performance history.

The promotion of the production in the interview is also achieved through the promotion of the practitioner in a wider theatrical context. Senter’s interview schema progresses from discussing Hicks’ response to Greek tragedy to his approach to acting as a profession.   The interview schema affords Hicks the opportunity to display his dedication to the profession through his process of preparation[20] and his commitment to performing classical texts through privileging plays that have a classical subject matter.[21] The element of disclosure and revelation augments the sense of authority in the interview: Hicks, by stressing his dedication to the genre and the profession, establishes himself as specialised in the field, therefore, his testament gains credibility. Furthermore, as the interview operates as a preview to Hall’s Bacchai, Hicks’ credibility as an actor further promotes the production: the very seriousness with which he takes his roles, and his experience and preference of the genre, adds legitimacy and kudos to the production. The unspoken subtext of the interview, however, could be considered contradictory.  The element of revelation assumes that the actor’s psyche is of importance and value in understanding the performance.  The position is contradictory in that Hicks also establishes that the attraction of masked acting is the anonymity the mask affords.  The contradiction lies in the fact that the interview presents the practitioner as key to understanding meaning, yet the performance style aims at subverting individual psychological expression in order to achieve Hall’s aim to present the text to the audience. 

The authority of the interview rests on the assumption that the interview process informs the potential audience, and, through presenting the interview as instructive, the publication is promoted.  The decision to present the interview as a monologue could be considered as a rhetorical technique aimed at persuading the reader of the authority of the interview.  The effacing of the interviewer’s voice suggests to the reader that he/she is gaining unmediated access to the practitioner, therefore, the assumption that the practitioner is key to understanding the production is augmented.  The selling point of the interview is that, by presenting the interview as an ‘interior monologue’, the publication provides the readership with a ‘truth’ that they would not otherwise have access to, which places the potential audience member in a greater position of knowledge.  To put it simply, the readership of What’s on in London are privileged as potential audience members above those who have not read the publication, as they can approach the production from a position of superior knowledge.  The concept of superior knowledge, however, works on a set of assumptions.  There is no critical voice in the interview, so the information is assumed to be authoritative without question, and the justification of authority rests on the implicit assumption that the psychological processes of the actor are key to understanding his performance.  That the interview is of value positions the readership as a potential audience drawn from a hermeneutic world (London-centric and theatrically aware) in which the name of the practitioner, his performance history and current undertaking has meaning.  For the interview to be of value beyond London’s theatre world and over and above the uncritical acceptance of the reader, the content of the interview needs to be placed in a wider critical context of performance analysis in which the production as a whole is examined in light of the style to which it subscribes and in relation to other possible performance methods.


Classical scholars’ developing interest in modern performance of classical texts requires debate and research into new methodological approaches.  Traditional methods of research, rigorous study of the original text and secondary criticism juxtaposed with performance analysis based on personal witness, do not constitute an embracing methodology.  The position of this article is that an appreciation of the intentions of the practitioners is needed in order to understand the performance aims of the production.  To this end, interviews with practitioners provide insight in to the motivation, justification, and reasoning that underpin the approach taken by the theatrical event.  However, given that interviews with practitioners can provide primary evidence for the theatrical event as well as secondary evidence in the form of reviewers’ evaluation, a revised critical apparatus needs to be put in place in order to analyse the reliability of information generated by the interview process. 

What has been seen in this paper, is that any critical apparatus needs to take account of the process of mutual validation that takes place between the publication, interviewer, theatrical production and interviewee.  Positively, what the above examples show is that journalistic interviews are a useful but problematic source for production analysis.  The interviews are useful in that they do provide evidence for the respective productions’ general interpretation.  This information can then be used as a basis for understanding the rationale behind the presentational modes, and, placed within a wider theatrical context, can evidence approaches to the different performance styles to which respective productions subscribe (for example, naturalistic character inhabitation or distance and abstraction from character).   The interviews are also useful as evidence of the critical tradition in the media; in particular Taylor’s interview provides clear evidence for media critics’ continuing validation of the performance of Greek tragedy predicated on a premise of universal interest. 

The interviews are problematic, however, as the requirement of mutual promotion on behalf of the publication and interviewer, and production and practitioner, coupled with the use of an interactionalist method, result in collusion rather than investigation.  In the above interviews, because there is no critical voice the interviewers do not analyse the information.  For this information to be used in support of performance analysis, the researcher needs to consider the extent to which the information is formed in response to the need to promote, and distinguish the data from the advertisement.  Furthermore, as is evident in both examples, the increasing tendency to promote interest in the celebrity figure and to collide the celebrity with his/her role (or the interpretation of the production) implies that the interviewee has an authoritative knowledge that is to be accepted rather than challenged.  Therefore, for the information generated from the newspaper interview to be of value, it has to be treated as the presentation of a production’s ‘party line’ and, consequently, not an authoritative interpretation of the original text as a performance text.  In sum, in order to use information from newspaper interviews, it is important for the researcher to maintain a critical distance and not to acquiesce in the closed loop of meaning created by interviewers and interviewees as a consequence of the mutual need for promotion. 

Alison Burke
August 2003

[1] I would like to acknowledge the assistance of the following: Prof. Douglas Cairns (Glasgow), Prof. Lorna Hardwick (Open), Dr Paul Innes (Glasgow), Dr Lloyd Lewellyn-Jones (Open), Mr Oliver Jones (What’s on in London), Dr Ian Ruffell (Glasgow), Mr Colin Templeton (photographer), Ms Paddy Walls and the anonymous referees.

[2] For a detailed study in reception criticism and classics see L. Hardwick, . ‘Reception Studies’, Greece & Rome: New Surveys in the Classics 33, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003.

[3] A companion study of the contribution that academic interviews provide to classical performance research is forthcoming.

[4] This point is established by the theatre director Peter Brook: “I see nothing but good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening.” P. Brook,  The Empty Space,Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1972, p.37.

[5] This point was established by Michael Walton in his analysis of Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia (Royal National Theatre: London, 1999) at the ‘Agamemnon in Performance Conference’ hosted by The Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, University of Oxford, September 2000.

[6] For a detailed discussion of ‘Elite’ interviewing see L. A Dexter,. Elite and specialized interviewing,Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970 and T. Odendahl, and A. Shaw, ‘Interviewing Elites’ inHandbook of Interview Research: Context and Method, J.F Gubrium, and J.A Holstein (eds.) California: Sage Publications Inc, 2002, pp. 299-316.

[7] An interactionalist method presents the participants as ‘peers’, joining together in a conversation in which the aspect of social encounter is maintained.  In journalistic interviews this can be used in order to preserve the illusion of intimacy between journalist and respondent.  See further D.Silverman, Interpreting Qualitative Data: methods for analysing talk, text and interaction, London, Sage, 2001, pp. 94-99.

[8] Ibid p.96. 

[9] D Altheide, ‘Journalistic Interviewing’ in Handbook of Interview Research: Context

and Method, J.F Gubrium, and J.A Holstein, (eds.) California: Sage Publications Inc., 2002, p. 413.  

[10] The fusion of actor and character is evident in the title of the photograph: “Fiona Shaw and Jonathan Cake: ‘Medea and Jason are locked forever in mutual recrimination over an unspeakable catastrophe’ ”.  The close association of the actors’ names with the characters’ names in order to merge practitioner with character is further supported by the direct quotation from Shaw. 

[11] That the interview operates as a preview as well as a review is evident from the strap line: “It’s a story of power, glamour, betrayal and atrocity.  On the eve of this West End opening of Deborah Warner’s sensational version of Euripides, Fiona Shaw and Jonathan Cake tell Paul Taylor why this ancient Greek tragedy is so suitable for our celebrity-obsessed culture” (publication’s emphasis)

[12] Taylor undertakes the same process of comparison when discussing Deborah Warner’s theatrical style through her production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler

[13] The marketing of Deborah Warner’s Medea as a star vehicle is discussed in A. Burke,  ‘Characterising the Chorus: Individual and Collective in Four Recent Productions of Greek Tragedy’, The Role of Greek Drama and Poetry in Crossing and Redefining Cultural Boundaries, The Open University (07492 8577X) and electronically at

[14] Greg Hicks played Orestes in Hall’s Oresteia (Royal National Theatre, London, 1980-1), Tiresias in Hall’sOedipus Rex (Royal National Theatre, London, 1996), Agamemnon in Hall’s production of John Barton’sTantalus (British premiere Lowry Centre, Salford, 2000).   For a full performance history see Hicks’ web site at: 

[15] Hall has established his theoretical position that the emotion and form of Greek tragedy necessitate mask use in a variety of sources.  See, for example Exposed by the Mask, London: Oberon Books, 2000, pp. 22-30 republished in part as ‘The Mask In Practice’, Bacchai Programme, London: Royal National Theatre, 2002. 

[16] That Hicks’ theory of mask use emerged from working with Hall on the Oresteia (the earliest collaboration) is established in an unpublished interview with myself in which he asserts: “it was the first mask venture that I had ever done in my life”. Interview with Greg Hicks (Orestes and Chorus Member in Peter Hall’s Oresteia) held at the Barbican Theatre, London on Tuesday 15 July 2001.

[17] See M. Shulman, The Standard, 30 November 1981, p.22 op. cit.  “The Oresteia, by Aeschylus at the Olivier is likely to become known as the War of the Masks.”

[18] For example, J. Barber, Daily Telegraph, 30 November 1981, M. Billington, Guardian, 30 November 1981, F. King, The Sunday Telegraph, 6 December 1982, K. Hurren, What’s on in London, 11 December 1981, all of which questioned Hall’s use of the mask. In contrast, approval was expressed by J. Fenton, The Sunday Times, 6 December 1981, and R. Christianson, Chicago Tribune, 17 January 1982. 

[19] With respect to his approach to choral movement, Hall commented, “The one thing I do know about dance is that if you dance and speak you might as well not bother to speak, because we all watch the dance.  I have been experimenting in the Bacchai with very slow movement and very quick speech so that the movement does not detract from the words. But I think that we didn’t solve the movement in the Oresteia at all.” Unpublished interview with Sir Peter Hall held at the Royal National Theatre (London) 30th May 2002.

[20] Hicks stresses his dedication to the profession and to his roles:  “I do think of acting as a kind of calling – I’m not one of those actors who can breeze in 30 minutes before the show…. I come in two or two and a half hours before the show and sit in my dressing room and prepare myself.” 

[21] With respect to Barton’s Tantalus, Hicks says, “Tantalus came and went before we eventually got the green light on one project, and I remember chucking the script into a skip in Clapham out of sheer frustration when the project collapsed again – after I had made myself available by turning down a Stratford season.” Although Tantalus could be considered as a modern play, implicit in Hicks’ comment is an opinion that the classical subject matter of Tantalus places Barton’s text within the canon of classical drama.