An ancient art form revived

7th February 1997 at 00:00
There cannot be many schoolteachers who, when they change schools, take their theatre company with them. One who did is David Stuttard, who invented the Actors of Dionysus in 1993, while he was teaching classics in Fife, and carried it off with him to Escrick School in York.

He borrowed the name from a troupe of itinerant actors of the 4th century BC, who toured plays round the Aegean. Very aptly, because the whole repertoire of these modern, touring Dionysians is made up of admirably-actable translations of the classic Greek theatre, created by their founder, who also directs them.

The polite way of describing this extraordinary venture is to say that it is "unique", privately thinking that no other company would be crazy enough to devote its whole energy to the company of long-dead foreign playwrights. But then again, could it just be an idea whose time has come round again?

Western Europe has had its century or so of comfortable, sheltered theatre. Now television news has opened a window in every sitting room on to the universal ills of mankind, most of which were daily bread to the warring city states of the Peloponnese. Maybe our sensibilities are changing, and the theatre can edge forward with the threshold of pain?

Seemingly David Stuttard thinks so, for the 1997 Electra of Euripides is the first company production to be given a contemporary setting. In the best traditions of the theatre, few clues are given in advance of the performance, though "more Mediterranean than British" is the hint from co-artistic director Tamsin Shasha.

Contemporary relevance aside, of course, these plays and authors always have their scholarly audience. Classicists feel ever more beleaguered and Dionysus sometimes feels it is a lifeline between the pockets of resistance. It gets affecting letters of thanks: "Thank you for keeping classics alive," wrote one.

The classics survive in few state classrooms; fee-paying schools now own the territory. Hutchesons' Grammar School in Glasgow has always been a Dionysus venue, and again the tour begins there, and includes a workshop for the Hutchie students.

Colleges and universities are another sectional interest. At St Andrews, Professor Kenneth Dover will give the pre-performance talk. These talks, given all over the country by eminent classicists are a feature of Dionysus work, and are now regularly published, to such effect that the Oedipus collection found its way on to the Open University reading list.

uElectra tour February 7, Hutchesons', tel: 0141 423 2933 February 8, Kilmardinny House, Bearsden, tel: 0141 943 0312February 10, Crawford Arts Centre, St Andrews, tel: 01334 474610February 11, St Bride's Centre, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 346 1405February 12, MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, tel: 01786 461081

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