Australian Arts

The Greeks

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

What a time of captivity, what a time of plague. The Disney musical Frozen, long delayed by the mammoth Melbourne lockdown, opened and then immediately had to stop. Sydney has the prospect of a lockdown that could stretch beyond human reckoning. No wonder a friend said last year you were better off reading the account of plague by the great Greek historian Thucydides than a newspaper: it was starker, it showed other societies had suffered worse, it was better written.

Now we have an exhibition Ancient Greeks, Athletes, Warriors and Heroes, on at the WA Museum Boola Bardip in Perth which will demonstrate that extraordinary sense of form the Greeks brought to the evocations of the human bodies that struggled in those wars they fought and which they symbolised through the infinite facets of what they made of their myth of the Trojan war, the enthralling, endless, utterly tragic conflict which Homer captured in that first and greatest of epic poems, The Iliad. That’s the one that begins by enunciating the folly of a hero, (‘The wrath of Achilles is my theme’) and ends with the honouring of an enemy (‘Such was the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses’).

It’s thirty years or more since Christopher Logue, the great ‘free’ translator of Homer, read War Music –– his paraphrase from The Iliad with the Australian actor John Stanton. Christopher had a voice like a pirate and John (though he was most famous for playing Malcolm Fraser in The Dismissal) had a voice a bit like Richard Burton’s.

In the reading at Melbourne University’s Ormond College they captured the speed, the drama, the excruciated glamour of this story. No ‘rose-fingered dawn’ for Logue. ‘Rat / pearl / onion / honey / these colours came before the sun / lifted above the ocean / bringing light / alike to mortals and immortals’.

And Achilles’ voice was as naked as a wrestler’s or a lover’s. ‘King / I have been a fool / the arid bliss self-righteousness provokes / addled my heart’.

That night, afterwards, as we celebrated like bacchanals in Lygon Street Michael Heyward said to me: ‘You could live a long life and not see a poetry reading to equal that.’ It was a testament to what words born of the Greeks could do. The actor Luke Mullins made a different attempt at this by doing Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, arguably the greatest living American poet, who is also the translator of Greek plays. Her Antigone was done by Juliette Binoche and Ivo van Hove, her Bacchae by Ben Whishaw and her Electra had a production in Melbourne with Zahra Newman as the desolated daughter and Jane Montgomery Griffiths – a classicist and a superb actress herself – as her hated mother Clytemnestra.

The Greeks are one of our starting points. When Rose Byrne did Euripides’ Medea in New York she was reanimating the longest dramatic tradition we have. And it’s such a boost in this uncertain time to hear that John Azarias and the Lysicrates Foundation are planning to do that strange haunting late play of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. That’s the one about the old archer who has been abandoned, with his terrible wound, on a desert island. Odysseus, that man of consummate cunning, gets Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, to trick him into returning to Troy, no conquest possible without him.

Seamus Heaney did a version, The Cure at Troy, and there is a famous essay about the play by that great American critic Edmund Wilson who takes Philoctetes as a prototype of the artist. Philoctetes is at the very edge of Sophocles’ tragic art. You can almost see it turning into something else, as Shakespeare’s did in his romances.

When I was a boy a lifetime ago I used to read the play imagining the great Paul Scofield as the old archer and Tom Courtenay as the conscience-stricken young deceiver. But the play has a weird purgatorial quality, a step away from the language of tranquillity. This projected version will include sometime soldiers with the backing of the defence forces serving as Sophocles’ chorus. It will be at the Malthouse sometime over the Covid rainbow, a discus throw from Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance which exhibits a conscious quotation of a great Greek building.

The mystery of the Greeks is that they are so old to us (because they are the start of one of the things we are) yet they also, when we first encounter them as teenagers, have an uncanny modernity because they mapped out the parameters of what can be known and felt. ‘I loved you Atthis, long ago / When you were like a slender sapling / And all my girlhood was in flower’. Sappho, as great a lyric poet as ever lived. Jane Montgomery Griffiths did a brilliant show about her.

Of course the other side of our inheritance, we history-soiled Westerners, is the Jews. The all but intolerable but not quite tragedy of the Book of Job, the sensuousness of the Song of Songs, David weeping for Jonathan, David weeping for Absalom. And in all those psalms David weeping for himself.

If you need a diversion that is deep and dark and quivering with drama, have a look at Losing Alice on Apple TV from Israel. Handsome early-middle-aged film director, married to leading-man smoothie, her auteurship stymied by writer’s block meets on a train a weird, wildly good-looking girl who seems mad as the sea. She has written a script full of every psycho precipice you could flinch at and she takes over the role of the young girl like a prophetess or premonition.

Losing Alice sets itself up with a moody irresistible brilliance and it continues to have moments of riveting nightmare and panting terribly real-looking sex that will startle the most seasoned viewer.

The girlhood in flower here looks deadly though Losing Alice is also a thriller that reverses expectations and constantly plays with the shadows and chimeras of victimhood. It’s prima facie evidence of an Israeli television as sophisticated and uninhibited as the earth knows.

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