I remember a Yorkshireman ahead of me at the Army Board interviews being asked about his education. "I've got a degree in classics," he said. "We've come a long way since then," sneered the officer. "Aye," replied the Yorkshireman, "but which road?" It would be a response dear to the heart of David Stuttard, who studied classics at St Andrews before teaching in Edinburgh, St Andrews and York. Outside each classroom door was the theatre company he founded, the Actors of Dionysus, which he now co-directs with Tamsin Shasha.
What began five years ago with a six-venue tour of Hekabe is now a small industry, powered by very little money and a perpetual gusher of enthusiasm. At its root is the annual tour, by tradition starting in St Andrews, but always expanding the number of venues, which this year exceeds 40.
Every year the company puts out a different play in a new translation, and this is the company's touchstone, because Stuttard combines Greek scholarship with considerable theatrical flair and a true playwright's instinct for dialogue.
This year's tour is Oedipus the King, one of the great detective stories of all time, where the felony is planned by the gods, and the investigator is the criminal, guilty of the worst crimes imaginable. In the confines of the MacRobert Studio, played in the arc of an audience put in the role of the people of Thebes, the remorseless revelation of Oedipus's situation lost none of its power, even though the play's weight had to be carried by only four actors.
A floor cloth mandala, an arras of old maps, and a few candles bridge the time and spiritual space between the spectator and player; otherwise only the power of the words and the acting sustained the spectator through Oedipus's agony, played here for one hour 40 minutes without an interval.
When in the closing minutes, actress Debbie Leeding narrated the blinding of Oedipus, there was a clearly audible gasp from the audience, the gasp Sophocles must have listened for in the Theatre of Dionysus. This audience, however, was mostly three school parties, from Perth, Gargunnock and Ardrossan Academy, from the last a coach-load of Secondary 1 and 2 making a journey as long as the play to keep up the association with the theatre company.
James Willetts, principal teacher of classics at Ardrossan, explains the foreground to the plot, and then lets theatre take its course. One of his rewards is to glance across the studio during the performance and see his charges agog with the unfolding plot.
The company gets a small grant, but it is enthusiasts and organisations connected with the classics who sustain it. For their part, the "Actors" work every seam open to them. They publish each of the nine translated texts, and companion volumes of essays on each production. They are beginning to issue audiobooks for each new production, and have produced a teaching video, The Face of Tragedy.
Given time and support, Actors of Dionysus could restore the classics to their proper place in the theatre repertoire, which would be something like a permanent National Classical Theatre. Meanwhile, the enthusiasts are taking their coach parties to watch some long-dead powerful political ruler agonise in the hearing of his citizens over sins he has committed. Even though we have come a long way since then.
For touring details contact Actors of Dionysus on 01904 642912