The ethics of classical performance reception

Classical texts which are transmitted through performance raise a range of issues concerning ownership and authority. The question of “fidelity to the (original) text” continues to haunt both audience responses and critical analysis. Actors and directors, meanwhile, must find fruitful ways to negotiate a classical legacy without falling into the extremes of creative paralysis or reductive disrespect. Tread softly among the dead. Be radical, be adventurous, be irreverent and be cruel, but be sincere. Performing classical drama is a process of reanimation, of giving over your body and your voice to passions and figures not your own: ventriloquising antiquity. This deserves greater acknowledgement.

Why perform ancient plays? And for whom? Are they primarily educational (bus in the school groups, expose them to Culture, yawn through the ritual, stay for the talk)? Primarily political (Lysistrata / Trojan Women)? Must they, above all, be “relevant”? And beyond the why, the how: to what extent familiarised or to what extent estranged, in terms of translation and mise-en-scene? Modern English has no linguistic register equivalent to tragedy. Modern theatre has no framework of community equivalent to tragedy’s ancient context. What, exactly, are we aiming to (re)produce?

An actor’s relationship to text – to character – is uniquely intimate. Its climax involves not merely encountering, but temporarily embodying an other, in an extraordinarily generous act of consensual possession. We surrender, and acquire power in surrendering. It is this point of contact that I believe requires greater consideration. Subjective experience, rather than the socio-political abstract, is where ancient theatre persists. If practitioners are to move beyond the banal justification of “relevance”, and critics beyond the specious struggle of “text” against “performance”, focus has to shift from the macro- to the micro-dynamics of reception, towards the performer’s authority of abnegation.

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