Monday, 29 June 2009

Diamond Reindeer

A sad, haunting song here from Sámi singer Mari Boine, about the destruction of the environment and the loss of diversity. Using lyrics written by a child, she conveys a sense of threat with none of the finger-wagging preachiness on the same subject that made Joni Mitchell’s album Shine so bloody irritating.

Stuorra ruovde stállut leat ollen deike
Si ruvget ja boltot ja boltot
Ohcet min diamántta spáilliha
Čiehkkát, diamántta spáillit,
Čiehkkát, čiehkkát, ulldáid ellui.

Great metal beasts have come here
They roar and dig and dig
Searching for our diamond reindeer
Hide, diamond reindeer,
Hide, hide, don’t let them catch you.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Not one of my Success Stories

Imagine that you have been required by those above you in your job to go abroad for six months intensive training in a subject of absolutely no interest to you. Think horrors like writing an appreciation of every Mills and Boon novel or half a year's Bible study with Pastor Steven L Anderson - anything miles away from your natural leanings and talents. The financial inducements are considerable, but so is the effort required of you to do something you would never have chosen for yourself. What would you do?

I have four students in this position. The Algerian navy requires them to learn English to a prescribed level within a given period of time, and that’s that. My first group of six pilots on this scheme last year were some of the most dedicated students I have ever taught. They arrived with a lower intermediate level of English, worked their balls off and made the grade. Crucially, all six had been through higher education and knew how to study. My present group all left school, probably with great relief, at fifteen, and have not set foot in a classroom for eighteen years. They are divers; they enjoy risk and physical activity. The printed word is uncongenial to them. They read little in Arabic and write even less. Yet they have to pass an exam in English that has papers in reading, writing, speaking and listening, and get a good upper intermediate grade, noch. In the university they must feel pretty much as I would if I were required to train for their job – out of my element and completely incompetent.

I walk into the classroom on Wednesday mornings, say ‘good morning’ and smile. I roll up my sleeves, set out my books, board markers, CD player and board rubber, stretching out these minor preparations until five past ten if I can. There is no sense of anticipation today, not like with other groups where you can think, boy, have I got something really useful for you lot to get stuck into today! Nah. The blokes break off their conversation in Arabic, look at me resignedly and take their places.

OK, one hundred minutes to lunch time, let’s rock!

In language classes you can, indeed must, get the students talking to each other in pairs or small groups to maximise everybody’s talking time. Obviously if the language level of the students is very low, such activities will not last long because they haven’t got enough language to expand on the topic in question. In my other lessons, the main concern is to get everyone to conclude their conversations so that the next activity won’t fall off the end of the lesson. No danger of that here. After setting up, monitoring and feeding back on a task, I think, Christ, it must be lunchtime by now. I look at my mobile and see that it’s only ten forty five. These blokes are fairly hard working and good humoured but however hard I resist this impression, I feel effete and patronising and somehow, despite the importance to them of this bloody exam, irrelevant. It’s a strange and disconcerting feeling, one that blokes, especially straights, often arouse in me when they incline more to the physical than the verbal.

We cannot dumb any of this down. The level they must reach is pre-determined and the exam is external, so no compromise with the content or tinkering with the results is possible. We have negotiated extra hours and an extension to the course, but still their feet are just supposed to expand to fill the big boots we have to shove them into. We had five months, of which three are already gone, in which to provide language input, study skills and exam technique for four blokes who came to us knowing diddley-squat about any of these, and for whom they are as alien as diving is to me. I do not say the goal is completely unattainable, only that it probably is, and that we’d need another academic year to see some possibility of its realisation.

Luke Prodromou wrote a book in the nineties entitled ‘The Mixed Ability Class and the Myth of the Bad Language Learner’. It’s a very useful book for any teacher who has a class where students of differing levels of attainment and ability are chucked together. I can’t agree that poor language learners are simply mythical, though. Surely no experienced teacher really buys this? Doesn't the very title contradict itself, or is 'mixed ability' supposed to mean something like 'differently abled'? In maths as a kid I was not 'differently abled' from the others - I was complete crap. Why then should there not be poor language learners? Any idealist is welcome to do a swap with me every Wednesday for the next two months. Phil Beadle (look at his website, vomit-worthy main page, good articles) could do a Channel 4 documentary, turning the classroom into a multi-gym or teaching listening skills underwater. Then we will see what the IELTS scores are in August. It’s only a month away.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Sweet Bird

My ego, that big wobbly bubble, was recently pleasingly flattered by three young colleagues when they expressed amazement on learning that I am fifty. They had had me down for thirty-eight or so. (I didn't do the 'go on, guess' bit - it just came up in a conversation about memories.) I told my mum on the phone. ‘You’ve got The Genes’ she said, for at seventy-three, in full war paint she can pass for late fifties. ‘I’ll just put up with the bloody bunion, then’, I said, for I have inherited hers. It still freaks me out, though, getting older.

People tell you what will happen and they are right; incidents from thirty years ago will pop up unbidden into your mental viewing panel with blinding clarity, whereas the fascinating topic you were about to google two minutes ago is lost irretrievably. Awareness dawns that certain mental functions are becoming a little more effortful. I downloaded an article in Greek because I intended to write a blog-post shitting on it from a great height, and was horrified to find that reading it was hard work, like swimming through Copydex. I pasted it into Word and enlarged the font so it looked like one of those tombstone-size novels for the hard of seeing that you find in libraries. Then it was less of a chore. This is not an eyesight problem, though, but one of processing speed. Fortunately, after a while my brain reaccustomed itself to written Greek and it has become a lot easier.

I do a huge amount of thinking on my feet while teaching – literally on my feet, because I hate to see a teacher ensconced behind a desk, separated from the class by three feet of polished wood. I move about the room, talking to students individually, and although this must keep my brain engaged, by the end of the day I am in pain! My legs and back ache like carious teeth. And then… I’ve forgotten what I was going to say now… oh, yeah, I do a bit of yoga to release the tension and reflect gloomily that only four years ago in Kalamata I had a private yoga teacher, and was so flexible I could stick a hand up my bum and push it out my mouth to grab an ankle. Now I cannot even assume the Cobra - an asana that involves no contorsion to speak of - without a wince of pain.

I have believed all manner of ‘spiritual’ shite in my time. I was a teenage Christian, an early twenties Buddhist and reader of J. Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, Shunryu Suzuki, and a whole crew of roshis and gurus. I was a Spiritualist in my early thirties after a friend was killed in a car crash, then an amateurish Wiccan simply because I decided my marble-clad flat in Athens looked like a temple. Now I know I never really felt any of it. I was always attracted by the outward appearance – crosses, pentacles, incense, kimonos and candles – and the theatricality of ritual and the comforting thought that there is a life beyond this one. This might be true, for all I know, or for all anyone else knows – I see no justification for absolute certainty either way. Nothing ever set me on fire, though. Now I sit in the emptiness left after my entertaining beliefs have been abandoned, and do not seek to pretty up the void any more, seeing every past belief as a shield against despair, and almost every thought as a defence against imaginary fears. Better to accept the fear and despair and to detach oneself by not identifying with them. Maybe I am finally beginning to practise the Zen Buddhism I read so much about in my twenties. It’s rather boring, actually, because it is so hard to abandon the sticky little hope that in sitting and observing, one is preparing for satori to strike, and won’t that be wonderful, and isn't it about time..?

That’s enough of that. It’s ten to seven and there’s time for one more coffee before I get ready to catch the train. Here’s Joni Mitchell, going through a similar mid-life thing but expressing it far more beautifully than I could hope to. Bitch.

Out on some borderline
Some mark of in-between
I lay down golden in time
And woke up vanishing

Sweet bird you are
Briefer than a falling star
All these vain promises on beauty jars
Somewhere with your wings on time
You must be laughing
Behind our eyes
Calendars of our lives
Circled with compromise
Sweet bird of time and change
You must be laughing
Up on your feathers laughing

Golden in time
Cities under the sand
Power, ideals and beauty
Fading in everyone's hand

Give me some time
I feel like I'm losing mine
Out here on this horizon line
With the earth spinning
And the sky forever rushing
No one knows
They can never get that close
Guesses at most
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching

Sunday, 14 June 2009

No Sweat Shakespeare

‘From now on, Shakespeare’s language can be fun, easy and exciting!’

About time! For all these years the old boy’s been famous only for being dull, difficult and boring, but now No Sweat Shakespeare offers us the plays and sonnets ‘translated’ into modern English and available as teen-novel e-books! Here’s the like totally awesome opening of No Sweat's ‘Much Ado about Nothing’? Hold on to your hats!

It was a hot morning in Messina. The only thing that interrupted the clear blue of the sky was the wispy smoke that rose lazily from Mount Etna. As usual, the governor's villa was filled with young people enjoying themselves with music, sports and conversation. An ensemble of minstrels played and sang fashionable songs that they had brought from Florence; two muscular fellows wrestled, cheered on by a group of spectators of both sexes, while the garden was dotted with pairs and trios, sitting in the shade of the huge pines, chatting.

Could it get more fun, easy or exciting? It’s nearly as good as a Geoffrey Archer novel. Doesn’t that stuff about Mount Etna just make you shiver? Like the whole pizzeria could go up in flames any minute! The website promises us that ‘these modern language translations have all the excitement and tension of the original Shakespeare texts’, and so they do, so they do. Here’s the bit in Othello where Iago is scheming to get Cassio pissed so he’ll disgrace himself in company. The plan seems to be to get an honourable, manly soldier to curl up on a lady’s knee like a Bichon:

Iago couldn't believe his luck. Now if he could just make him have one glass, that, together with what he had already had, would make him as quarrelsome and offensive as a lapdog.
The utter cad! That clunky syntax is the perfect reflection of Iago’s twisted thinking.

One of the main benefits of reading Shakespeare as a teen-novel e-book is that finally we get Shakespeare to say what he goddam means in plain, just-folks language. I mean, who the hell talks like this?

I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire:
The day is hot, the Capulets abroad,
And, if we meet, we shall not scape a brawl;
For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.

Benvolio’s plea is ‘translated’ as:

‘If we bump into any of them there's bound to be a fight because the heat is stirring everyone up.’
That’s more like it. I mean ‘For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring’ might make you feel uneasy, threatened by some innate male violence about to bubble up in and around you. Explaining that to kids would be plain irresponsible in today's society, and anyway, they would never be able to get their minds round that inversion of subject and verb in the last clause, poor mites. I suppose some pedantic types will complain that the original quote culminates with the evocative word 'stirring' and the 'translation' sort of peters out with the drippy adverbial 'up', but at least we lose the blood. Can't stand the mention of blood.

I noticed No Sweat have no e-book for ‘The Winter’s Tale’ yet, so I have started one for them and diffidently offer the first scene:

It was an icy cold evening in Sicilia. There was snow underfoot and a clear starry sky overhead, but there were cracks in the thin ice on the lake, making most married men whose best friends were visiting them really wary of skating. In his magnificent palace, dotted with beautifully dressed people exchanging the latest gossip in clusters, King Leontes, a good family man, was entertaining his friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. Minstrels sang all the latest madrigals and there were sumptuous pizzas and creamy zabagliones, and fine wines were being enjoyed responsibly by everyone over twenty-one.

Archidamus from Bohemia excused himself politely from the dining room, and in a quiet, splendid antechamber that was superbly furnished, he was wondering wistfully how his master could ever match this magnificent entertainment when Leontes came to Bohemia, as he was planning to, because it was time for him to do so, having scheduled it inexorably into his schedule for that coming summer. ‘We will give you wines to make you sleepy’ he twinkled chucklingly to Camillo, a splendid lord in Leontes’s court, who had followed him as he left the tastefully decorated dining room to check if there was anything wrong with the zabaglione. ‘Then you won’t notice how poor our hospitality is in comparison with yours.’

Of course, he was only joshing about the wines!
Got to go, it’s late. Parting is a sad but pleasant experience, but I need some sleep to knit the ravelled sleeve of care. That doesn't mean my sleeve really. You have to imagine I am thinking of my mind as a sleeve worn with worries, and sleep will knit up the holes. Get it? Yes, yes, I know I should just say what I mean. I'm going to bed.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Musical Interlude

A little music, I think, to usher in the weekend. Here are two tracks from CDs I have been playing a lot recently. First is Azam Ali, bless her, with 'In the Garden of Souls' from the eponymous CD. Unfortunately it gets cut off a little before the end, but I like the beginning better anyway - so that's OK. This CD is popular with my Arab students as backgound music to our wrestling with writing skills.    

Next, Tom and Jerry and Flash Gordon dance the Tandava! Well that's what it sounds like to me. This is the movement 'Joy of the Blood of the Stars' from Messaien's extravagant, insane Turangalila Symphony (1949). A title like 'Joy of the Blood of the Stars' should warn you that the thing is slightly barmy, but play it loudly and it doesn't half dispel gloom.     

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Just a Quick Note...

... before I switch off for the evening.
Christ, is it only Wednesday? It seems as though I have already spent a full week working on the academic writing skills of my Arabic-speaking students and I’m knackered, my brain is overcooked, I’m incobloodyherent and talking turtle ballshit. Their dedication and persistence are truly admirable but boy, do we have some ground to cover. I had given them a few snippets of info about plagiarism, culled from various sources, plus a few notes on the topic. The idea was that they would produce a little essay on plagiarism and why it is not acceptable, using the five sources provided and referencing them according to the Harvard system. Well, frankly, their efforts were crap.

I got quite ratty marking them. Even people who had earlier got the hang of knocking together a fair little for-and-against essay of the bland and uninspiring IELTS* type went down the pan on this one. I marked them, harrumphing and for-Christ’s-saking, and planning a mass bollocking session where I would rail at want of diligence and lack of proper procedure, like a Somali imam denouncing the infidel. Graduates, this lot are, fuck’s sake, you expect better than what they might scribble on the back of a fag packet, well, don’t you? Je-zus

Well, honestly.

I calmed down before handing the essays back and realised I had taken far too much for granted. The task had mystified most of them. There are so few similarities between the conventions we would have them observe and the ones they are used to observing in their own countries. For one thing, reading other people’s stuff and using their ideas to back up your own points or to take issue with them is a bizarre practice for most of them. Then, telling your reader up-front which bits of your essay you got from other sources strikes them as plain daft. Some cannot yet distinguish note-form from connected prose (bit worrying, that, at this stage) a summary from a direct quote, or the author’s name from the publisher’s or the place of publication from either. I queried the apparently unmotivated use of italics in one essay and discovered that the perpetrator believed their purpose to be merely decorative, and that the odd italicised word gave the essay added eye-appeal. Once, a couple of years ago, a Chinese boy whose spoken English was pretty good handed me an essay that was just one three-hundred word sentence. I said we had better sit down and punctuate it. ‘Oh,’ he said, mildly surprised. ‘Do the dots matter?’

Well, we set about untangling all this, hence my mashed brain. It was clear that for most of them the conventions for referencing books, journals and so on were the main worry. What do you underline? What do you put in italics? Where does the date go? I kept insisting that they have no need to memorise all this dull stuff. There are dozens of booklets and web-pages where the info is stored, ready for when they need it. Some fussbudgets actually want to have it all in their heads, though. They are probably the Arab equivalent of the sort of bookish kid - now surely extinct? - who knew all those daft collective nouns for animals and the correct plural of ‘sergeant major’, and who was careful in speech always to use the article ‘an’ before a noun beginning with ‘h’. All pretty pointless, really, occupying mental disc-space that could be used for more useful stuff, such as distinguishing facts from opinions or where subject of verb is have went in that thicket of verbiage who you have just written it.

Once again, and I do go on about this rather, I try to get them to focus on the process of writing, how you decide what to say, rather than on the end product, which is all they are interested in. They come from learning backgrounds where teachers would probably regard memorising every possible convention for referencing sources as a laudable undertaking, simply because it would be so fucking tedious. Several students have come to me with the idea that success in essay writing depends on the number of sentences they include in the introduction and conclusion. They have recipes: take five sentences for the lead in, four for each paragraph of the body, throw in a nice fat conclusion, six or so here, what the hell. Bollocks, I say, politely. It all depends on what you have to say, so sod formulas. Where do you get all this stuff from? Pay-sites that want to make you sufficiently paranoid to shell out for more such useless tips, that's where.

Tomorrow I have to hit them with a similar assignment to the plagiarism one, but this time they will be given fifteen pages of source material on which to base their essay. I’m getting ready for a session with rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, and a general sense of hopelessness that I will somehow have to dispel by three o’clock tomorrow afternoon.

This post is hardly a model of good writing, so it’s as well none of my students reads this blog. I OUGHT to revise and edit this now, but I need a shower and then a few glasses of merlot, pretty desperately, so sod it. Please don't tell anyone I said that.

*IELTS = International English Language Testing System. Tedious exam for overseas students who want to study in an English speaking country. There's an academic version and the hideously named 'general training option' for students who go for vocational courses. I have a prejudice against the term 'training' when applied to humans. 

Sunday, 7 June 2009

More Kolonaki Ladies

The Evangelismos Hospital and the sculpture 'Ο Δρομέας' 'The Runner'

I’ve already mentioned that Kolonaki is the posh bit of central Athens. Kolonaki Square, or to give it its polysyllabic Greek name, Plateia Filikis Etaireias, is a place where the sort of people who like to see and be seen go in their designer gear to shell out on designer beer, designer food and extortionately-priced scotch. Ten minutes walk away is Marasli* Street. There in the nineties you had Mario’s restaurant, where the clock told nine forty-five all day everyday, and the where the menu was never changed. You had the Smallest Café in the World, a shop just big enough to accommodate a fridge, a counter, a three foot diameter round table and a few beer crates to sit on while you drank your Amstel. There was a dark, poky supermarket run by an irascible elderly couple, and a wine shop whose proprietor was never seen to smile. Other establishments sold surgical gloves, crutches, slings, trusses, bedpans, catheters, pulleys, inflatable rubber cushions and tubes, props, pads, supports and aids for aching, ailing, leaking bodies, for on Marasli stands the Evangelismos Hospital, and if you are in third class accommodation there, your relatives must undertake most of the nursing care for you. Wherefore enjoy seeing and being seen over in the plateia while ye may, for Marasli is where ye could well end up.

A small bunch of elderly British and American ex-pats had lived in and around Marasli for years. They were ‘illegal aliens’, not that anybody gave a stuff. Most were far-gone in drink and not long for this world in any case. Two of the Americans, Sheila and John, had been journalists. They had come to Greece ages ago, liked the life, liked the cheap booze, liked the fact that nobody hassled you for papers, and without ever really planning to, had stayed. (‘Greece is like fly-paper’ a Canadian ex-pat once said to me.) In his seventies, John developed some problem with his legs, and shuffled stiffly about on crutches. Neighbours began to complain of the stench emanating from his flat and of the cockroaches that this attracted. When he was at length taken away in an ambulance, the floor of the flat was found to be splattered with several weeks’ worth of shit. He had been unable to get to the bathroom and could not in any case have sat down on the lavatory. Lacking money and relatives, he spent his last few days under a sheet in a hospital ward, naked, unshaven, unattended. There was nothing left to do but die, so he died.

I learned about this from a colleague, Alison, who had lived in Kolonaki for four years before I moved there. She’d had our secretary phone round all the hospitals in Athens to find which one had recently admitted a semi-paralysed old American man with no family and apparently no history. By the time they managed to locate him, there was nothing anyone could or would do.

Alison and I often ate at Mario’s absolutely-no-frills-whatsoever-just-forget-about-frills-OK? restaurant, because it was dirt cheap and Alison took great pleasure in finding the most economical way to do everything. The food was not bad for the price, and most evenings of the year you could sit out on the pavement and observe the traffic, the white-coated doctors flicking fag-ash everywhere, and the endless coming and going of the halt and the lame and their dozens of family members. It was a good deal more entertaining than watching the overdressed posers and bimbos over at the square. Frequently Sheila would join us.

Sheila was gaunt and pale, and looked about seventy, although she may well have been younger. She wore a scarf tied in a knot at the back of her head to cover her thinning hair. She had a contralto voice and spoke slowly in a patrician American accent. She could be very personable if plenty of wine was available. ‘We are, uh,… enthoosiastic,’ she said, when we had sunk yet another carafe of Mario's retsina in no time flat. This was the signal to ask Mario for more. Sheila had no home of her own, but lived in the Kolonaki flat of an Englishman of her acquaintance, while he was in his other flat in Poros. When he wanted to come back to Athens, Sheila and her cat had to pack and get the hydrofoil to Poros, until such time as The Man felt like leaving Athens again. The important thing was that they should not coincide. Along with most of Sheila’s so-called friends, The Man couldn’t abide her. She was, they all said, self-centred, sarcastic and ungrateful but possessed of a knack for making people feel sorry for her.


‘Sheila’s locked out of the flat’ Alison said on the phone. ‘Oh, bloody hell, what do I do now?’

Alison and I both lived in tiny places and the problem, should Alison take Sheila in, would be how to get rid of her if it transpired that the English bloke had simply turfed her out. In the event, Sheila settled uncomplainingly on her bags in the doorway of her building and Alison gave her 5000 drachmas to buy food. If you were careful, this sum could feed you for three days or so. Passing by the doorway on her way home from work, Alison stopped to ask Sheila if she was OK. Had she bought any food?

‘Oh, yeah, I um… bought a few things…’ Sheila murmured, and rummaged about among her belongings. She had bought two dozen rolls of kitchen paper and a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, now liquefied in the July heat. Plainly, age and the booze were getting to her.

The Englishman must have returned, because their version of normality was restored. I remember a few more evenings with Sheila after this, at Mario’s and in Café 48, the little bar across the road from my flat. She looked more and more like a bag-lady as time passed. One evening she was evicted from Café 48 because she had mistaken the corner of the little back room for the ladies’ loo, and begun to untruss in full view of the customers. A week or two later when she tried to come into the bar she was refused entry. She gave a sad little nod of understanding as she was turned away. The effects of dementia, in the early stages, come and go. People do and say insane things and then wake up to the knowledge of what they did or said. Sheila was enduring the pain, fear and humiliation alone.

Eventually Sheila was too dotty to cope by herself, and none of her alleged friends was around to help, so Alison and a friend of hers contacted the Missionaries of Charity at Kolonos, who agreed to take her in for a while. Knowing that no Greek taxi driver would take a urinous bag-lady anywhere, Alison and Jane dowsed themselves with perfume and sat Sheila between them on the back seat, hoping that they would be at least half way to Kolonos before the ammonia fumes pierced the fragrant clouds. They got Sheila safely to the sisters, but she was in no wise grateful, complaining that she had to get home as she had 'work to do' and just who were these goddam peasants anyway?

The rest of the tale is predictable. After a spell, Sheila upped and left the Sisters, who were no doubt relieved. She collapsed in the street some while later and was taken into the Evangelismos, where, having no money and no relatives, she was probably pretty much ignored. There was nothing left to do but die. So she died.


*Stress on the final syllable: /maraz'li/

Monday, 1 June 2009

Pleasant Anticipation

It’s a long, long way from June to September. To the 15th of September, specifically, when I shall be slinging myself and my suitcase onto the train to Stansted and thence to Greece for ten days. Until then, as I go through the recurring dream that is English Language Teaching in a British University, what will keep me from flipping is the thought of going back to what was home for fifteen years, and meeting people I have not seen in the four years since I left.

I want lots of wine-sodden dinners in the largely tourist-free tavernas you can find in unexpectedly green and balmy parts of Athens, and away from the pullulating sea-front in Kalamata. I want to buy CDs at the little shop called ‘Η Λέσχη του Δίσκου’ on Akadimias Street in Athens. It means ‘Disc Club’ and it stocks classical, Byzantine and ethnic stuff that’s hard to find elsewhere. The name does not have the teeny-bopper ring in Greek that the translation has in English. I want to sit alone at dusk with a whacking great glass of malt in the main square of Kalamata before ambling down to the marina for dinner with friends. For old times' sake I might even eat the στραγάλια, those bloody vile dried chickpeas they serve along with the whisky. A handful of these in the mouth feels like polystyrene and nail clippings.

And I might go to the theatre.

I’ve been to Epidaurus three or four times. The magnificence of the setting and the theatre itself are things never to be forgotten. On leaving the car park you walk down a long grove to the theatre, which you cannot see until you are standing directly in front of it: a huge, graceful sweep of ancient amphitheatre glowing golden in the setting sun and gentle spot lights, capable of seating 15,000 people, many of whom are seated already. On my first visit there I was with a friend, Heather, who was trained as an opera singer, another friend, Alison, who had been a semi-professional opera singer, and I am an ex-wannabe actor. (Gave up on wanna-being.) We confronted that gathering crowd and that pre-performance buzz of conversation, and damn near wept for what might have been. We walked up into the amphitheatre, found cushions and sat, taking in the view of the hills and pine forests and the shrill scraping of the cicadas. ‘You know’ said an American tourist behind us to his lady companion ‘if you didn’t come here, you wouldn’t see these things.’ Well, quite.

The performance on that first occasion was the Sophocles Electra. It might sound odd to criticise a stage performance as ‘stagey’ but that is what it was, with Clytemnestra’s sacrifice at the beginning involving her inexplicably tipping a bucket of dry ice into a small pool in a declivity centre stage. It chuckled and bubbled and vapour billowed out of it. I think was illuminated in green from below, but that might be a trick of memory. It definitely had more of Babes in the Wood about it than hard Greek tragedy. Cameras are forbidden at Epidaurus. Nevertheless, at least half the spectators had brought theirs with them, and every time the formation of the actors changed, several hundred little flashes went off, and the rest of the audience remonstrated loudly. Late-comers are not admitted until there is a suitable break in the performance, and this is the kind of pesky rule many Greeks feel should be waived in their own particular case. Epidaurus is famed for its amazing acoustics: if you stand on the top row of the auditorium you can hear a match struck on stage. You could also on this occasion hear squawks of protest from a female ticket holder who was being denied admission.

The Herodion Theatre in Athens was in easy walking distance of where I lived so I went more often than to Epidaurus. Here we saw Peter Hall’s production of the Lysistrata, which on the night we went was enthusiastically received by a huge audience. The Greek critics were snotty about it, though. ‘Aristophanes is not Benny Hill’ one of them sniffed. Well, true, and thank God for that. I thought he was just being tediously chauvinistic and suggesting that foreigners were incapable of appreciating and interpreting Greek drama, the old ‘it’s-not-in-their-blood’ bollocks. But then I went on my own one evening to see a Greek company perform Othello. I think I endured it for about half an hour. The first thing that was wrong was the Desdemona. She gets quite a build up before we see her, what with her father Brabantio having a fit because she appears to have been abducted, and Othello’s long speech to the senate about how he captured her imagination with his stirring tales of war and heroic exploits. Her old dad tells us she is:

A maiden never bold:
Of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion
Blush’d at herself

So expectations are high by the time she’s brought on: a tender and blushing young thing she must be, but full of suppressed passion. Here she must have been at least forty five, hair lacquered into a crash helmet, and with the voice of one who smoked sixty a day. She was hardly so lovely fair that the sense ached at her- the murder scene must have come as quite a relief. The biggest misjudgment, though, was the Iago. He was a mustachioed villain, transparently up to no good. This of course made the rest of the characters look like credulous idiots, all going on about him being honest, honest Iago, and weighing his words e’er he gave them breath, when we could all see he was as subtle as Dick Dastardly.

Perhaps the Greek critics had a point after all. Maybe the British Lysistrata was a tad too larky? I don't know. Certainly that Greek Othello was too broadly drawn, too doom-laden from the off, too unwilling to allow itself to be funny, as if all the characters knew they were acting in a tragedy before they had any reason to suspect this to be the case. Maybe the Greek style of stage acting is too focussed on tragedy or comedy, rather than on the combination of the two necessary for Shakespeare. Maybe it was just a crap production.

Anyway, we will see what’s on this autumn. I feel I have some living to catch up on.


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