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March 29, 2001 Euripides speaks to us across 2,500 years



Theatre students in a scene from The Bacchae

Theatre students Hala Taher and Penny Charbonneau in a scene from The Bacchae, playing until April 8 at the D.B. Clarke Theatre.


Photo by Heather Markgraf

by Anna Bratulic

The final production of the Theatre Department’s 2000-2001 season is The Bacchae, a classical Greek play written by Euripides some 2,500 years ago.

Given the age and origins of the piece — the beginning of Western civilization — comparing the themes of The Bacchae with the concerns of modern Europe and North America is a way to measure the evolution of the Western world.

The play is about a Dionysiac cult, and roughly deals with the themes of civilized man versus natural man, the mutual suspicion these dual “personalities” have for one another. It’s about violence, intolerance and fundamentalism. So, have we come a long way?

“No!” said Harry Standjofski, director of the coming production, between rehearsals. “Fortunately or unfortunately, we haven’t gone past what they’re talking about.”

But it’s the timeless character of the stories that is particularly fascinating, says Standjofski, the sense that the writers of these dramas were on to something when they strove to enlighten humans about their own behaviour.

While the drama of The Bacchae may still be relevant to a modern audience, staging it is not quite so easy. It is a typical piece of classical drama in its tendency to include many long monologues that are melodramatic by today’s standards. These have been significantly pared down.

Typically, for example, it’s not enough to convey sadness by uttering a teary sentence and then crying. Rather, a band of women, known as the “chorus,” that are in the play yet not part of the action, often lament over several strophes, or paragraphs, to express the sadness felt by all.

One of the reasons for all these words is that sets were very simple at the time. Often, a play was presented in the open air, with just a few changing-rooms for the actors.

To compensate for the lack of decoration which would help situate the play for the audience, the actors spent a lot of time describing scenes.

Standjofski, a versatile actor-director who works in English and French, stage and television, modern and classical, appreciates the subtlety that was often used in staging Greek dramas. Violent scenes, for example, could be heard offstage rather than seen on stage, leaving a lot to the imagination.

The challenge for this production has been to adapt the piece in a way that would entertain modern audiences and still keep the play classical.

“If you try to play it with a sort of high style (very traditional), then it seems sort of ludicrous,” Standjofski said. “If you try to play it realistically (i.e., without the melodrama), then it doesn’t work because the language won’t allow it. There’s a purity of acting style. It has to be played with a lot of emotion, but at the same time, it has to be carefully restrained.”

“I’m not particularly enamored with classical Greek plays as plays. They are way too long, and there is a lot of verbiage. But we have to remember that this was the beginning of Western dramaturgy. In one way they can’t be topped, in another way they’re very crude.”

The Bacchae runs from March 30 to April 8 at the D.B. Clarke Theatre on the SGW Campus. Tickets for students cost $5. See our Back Page for details.