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Making a powerful drama out of a tragedy

There is an austerity about the idea of Greek tragedy that can make it the butt of countless Monty Python jokes. It is in many ways the antithesis of "entertainment". Yet it is that austerity, that purity, that is one of its main attractions. It unleashes powerful emotions which give a direct and universal theatre experience which appeals to young people.

When Sophocles's Antigone appeared on the set text list for higher drama, I saw it as a serendipitous opportunity to direct a piece of classical Greek drama in school. But certain barriers had to be overcome. Although drama is acquiring credibility as a school subject, drama departments can still be thirled to the all-inclusive fund-raising venture of the school show.

The opportunity to tackle a more challenging work came in 1995 when Dumfries Academy pioneered a Scots Week to which all departments were asked to contribute. Directing Sue Glover's Bondagers for this event showed me that 15 and 16-year-old students could handle mature and sensitive material in an ensemble performance style with a non-realistic setting.

This was a clear result of their drama experience within the curriculum and through extra-curricular activity - such as involvement with the Scottish Youth Theatre.

The success of Bondagers resulted in an enthusiastic core of students keen to tackle another production. They signed up for a 16-plus Scotvec module and the growing profile of drama attracted other interested students - many of whom had not set foot inside the department since first year. The class therefore combined highly ambitious and experienced young "actors" with raw enthusiastic novices.

Harnessing enthusiasm for a production of Sophocles's Electra was not a problem: keeping it harnessed for the chorus members was. However, a February trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see three RSC productions provided a much-needed boost as many of the chorus members saw Euripides's Phoenician Women and were fired up with enthusiasm, fresh ideas and the dramatic possibilities open to them.

The role of Electra is arguably one of the most challenging in all Greek tragedy. But Vanessa Samuels, a sixth year pupil, rose magnificently to the challenge. In a performance of great courage, she gave herself to the emotions which buffet Electra, often leaving the stage tear-stained wherever she had lain.

At the initial stages, I was concerned about how accessible the piece would be to the audience, which we hoped would be made up of all ages. This problem was solved by a prologue written by Tom Pow of the English department which linked the universal elements of revenge and despair which the play dealt with to the political focus and civil wars of our time: "Blood in return for blood. Death upon death; those now and those to come."

From the first roll of the timpani from the "Gods" in the balcony to the final "blood in return for blood", the performances were an inspiring success. Fourteen committed students pulled off a production that considered the complexities of sibling relationships, the pursuit of revenge at all costs, the intricacies of the mother and child bond, misguided loyalty and the effects of deep despair. They left their audiences exhausted, humbled and amazed at their youthful ability to sustain such an intense, powerful piece of theatre.

Julie Smith teaches drama at Dumfries Academy. Her 5-14 Expressive Arts Pack, An Approach to Assessment in Drama, has just been published by Dumfries amd Galloway Education Department.

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