Variations on a Greek theme;Art Beat;Easter events

26th March 1999 at 00:00
A week sometimes acquires a theme. Quite unexpectedly I have found myself spending time with Ancient Greeks. I was at London's Theatre Museum to watch a workshop - more about which later - and wandered into the exhibition of Greek theatre there, Stage for Dionysos.

A potentially difficult subject is made accessible by taking a route through comedy and by introducing displays of atmospherically-lit costumes and masks, video explanation and interactive computer programmes. The exhibition continues until April 25, but workshops on related themes, such as the origins of Greek drama and the significance of masks, will continue after that at levels suitable for different age groups. (Details and bookings: 0171 836 7891.) Among the costumes in Stage for Dionysos are some from a famous 1920s Greek production of Aeschylus' tragedy Prometheus Bound. The myth of the Titan who was punished by Zeus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind inspired Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and now an uncompromising new film by Tony Harrison called simply Prometheus (15). Accord-ing to the story, Prometheus was chained to a rock while eagles daily devoured his liver, which each night healed only to be devoured again. Harrison has written and directed a script, mainly in verse, which relates the myth to post-industrial Yorkshire.

This is not a "feel good" film; it is that much rarer thing a "wake-up-and-think" film, but it is not simply polemic either. Fire licks through the action, representing, Harrison says, the source of the imagination, but also of material power. And there are reverberations of war in Europe and of the Holocaust. The leading figure is the god Hermes (played with glittering cynicism by Michael Feast), sometimes disguised as the hated pit talleyman or a truck driver in the fish factory -"the Peter Mandelson of Zeus", says Harrison. On the day the pit is to close, a small boy lights a coal fire and recites a speech from Aeschylus' play, his homework, while in a nearby house his grandfather coughes his life up, his lungs eaten away by cigarette smoke and coal dust.

Yorkshire village scenes soon give way to an extraordinary journey, which is both literal and of the imagination, across Europe to Greece. When the miners emerge from their final shift, they are bundled into a truck by Hermes' henchmen, Kratos and Bia, and in Germany they are tipped into a cauldron from which a golden statue of Prometheus, 35 feet tall, is cast and transported by truck across Europe to be chained once more to a rock. The old man watches in a derelict cinema and smokes defiantly, rebellious to the end. The gods are still intent on punishing men for their effrontery, but for Harrison Prometheus represents "the original heroic impulse".

The women from the fish factory are tranformed into statues of the Daughters of the Ocean and make a sad chorus floating on a pontoon along the waterways of Europe. The boy's mam is relentlessly pursued by Kratos and Bia.

This is an uncomfortable film, intense and fierce, not easily reduced to easy meanings. It is film as poetry and reverberates in the mind long after the credits have rolled. It defies classification as "high" or "low" art, but nevertheless demands commitment from its audience. There will be a South Bank show special about Prometheus on ITV this Sunday and the film will be released in London, Warwick, Brighton and Sheffield on April 16.

There were more Greeks on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre in Trevor Nunn's new production of Troilus and Cressida. Shake-speare's retelling of the tale of ultimate unfaithfulness is presented as a demonstration of the brutalising effect of war. This gives Sophie Okonedo a tough task, combining feckless tease with innocent teenager, victim with witty sophisticate. The director's decision to cast black actors in all the Trojan roles and white in all the Greek makes for clarity, but undermines the idea that the Trojan war was a dispute between two closely-related groups. This is, however, an exciting, sometimes funny production, with an outstanding Ulysses in Roger Allam. Tickets: 0171 452 3000.

Back at the Theatre Museum, 17 sixth formers were attending an A-level drama workshop on the ideas of Artaud. They had come from Coopers School in Chislehurst, Kent, with their teacher Sara Liles, head of drama there, and threw themselves into the exer-cises prescribed by their tutor, Caroline Griffiths. Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), described in the excellent teacher's pack as "poet, playwright, actor, director, theorist, part-time Surrealist and occasional madman" has continued to influence theatre right up to the current Shock-headed Peter and recent prod-uctions by Theatre de Complicite. The students, fresh from their own production of Oh, What a Lovely War, invented scenes in the style of Artaud, shocking and involv-ing the audience and using the stage and its lighting in unexpected ways. Sara Liles felt confident that there would be all kinds of new ideas and cross-references in her students' work. For details of other workshops and to obtain the free teacher's pack: 0171 836 7891.

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