One year with the CPUGRD: A message from Jon Hesk, Director of the Centre

Friday 17 January 2020


The Centre for the Public Understanding of Greek and Roman Drama was set up in late 2018 in order to provide a long-term hub for collaborations between our several ancient drama experts and contemporary play-makers, theatre educators and secondary schools.  The CPUGRD will also promote both Classics’ and other University of St Andrews’ Schools’ research activity on ancient performance genres and their post-classical ‘reception’ and reimaginings to both the academic community and the general public beyond the university.  To that end, we are hosting conferences, workshops, and lectures focused on producing cutting-edge research on ancient drama and performance. Finally, we give advice and logistical support to new student productions of Greek and Roman drama which take place in St Andrews. (Since the CPUGRD’s inception our students have staged four plays: Aristophanes Birds, Euripides’Iphigenia in Aulis, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannusand Plautus’ Menaechmi – more on the latter below!)

The centre hosts an annual lecture from a visiting academic or theatre practitioner. The first lecture took place in April 2019 and was delivered by our Distingushed Visiting Scholar for the year, Martin Revermann (Professor of Classics and Theatre Studies at the University of Toronto). Martin spoke specifically to the challenges of translating ancient drama for modern audiences and offered a critical analysis of our ‘public understanding’ remit via illuminating analyses of playwrights ranging from Aeschylus to Bertolt Brecht.  Martin also joined Francesco Morosi (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa) in leading a workshop called ‘Translating Aeschylus: pragmatic perspectives’.  Staff, undergraduates and postgraduates had a brilliant afternoon producing ‘performable’ translations of a choral song from The Agamemnon.(You can view these translations and photos of the event on the CPUGRD website).

In April and May 2019, one of the centre’s first major research and teaching projects came to spectacularly successful fruition with two performances of a student production of Plautus’ Menaechmi in the main auditorium of the Byre Theatre.  (Alumni of a certain vintage may not be aware that the Byre is now owned run by the University but is still very much dedicated to hosting shows which will be enjoyed by the wider community in Tayside and North East Fife). The Plautus show was the brainchild of my colleague Dr Beppe Pezzini. Beppe is an internationally recognized expert in Roman New Comedy and was instrumental in setting up the CPUGRD.  The play was translated and performed by students attending his module on Roman Comedy (LT4207).  Nearly 500 people attended the production over the two days. There was also a third special performance and related talk for secondary schools from the east of Scotland.

The project addressed, at all levels of the production (translation, costumes, directing, music etc.) the long-standing problem of where to position a modern English-language adaptation on the line between faithfulness to the original and the need for public accessibility.  I thought the result was very funny and entertaining for all-comers! The acting, set design, costumes, props, direction and translation were outstanding, as was the original music composed by one of the students. Roman comedies are rarely performed on UK stages and don’t feature much at all on secondary school syllabuses.  Beppe and the students showed us that this situation can and must  change!

The CPUGRD’s activities haven’t just been based in, or focused on, the academic and wider community of St Andrews.  In March 2019, myself, Beppe and Classics PhD student Eugenio Rallo travelled to the beautiful twon of Marsala in south-east Sicily to give talks on Greek and Roman Comedy at a  ‘study day’ on ‘ancient drama’ for school teachers and pupils from across the region.  The local ‘Liceo Classico’ pupils put on a hilarious production of Plautus’ Aulularia and we also enjoyed papers from Classics colleagues at the University of Palermo.

In April and August 2019, we welcomed London-based professional theatre company NMT Automatics to St Andrews.  They have a developing reputation for creating innovative and spectacular new work. They specialize in updating old stories and myths, giving them relevance to a modern audience, fusing dance, drama and music. You can see the results of ‘phase one’ of our work with them at the British Museum on 22ndFebruary, when they will be doing three free performances of a show based around the story of Hector and Andromache at an event connected to the museum’s highly acclaimed special exhibition Troy: Myth and Reality. 

The above only scratches the surface of the CPUGRD’s work so far.  I wish I had space to talk about other fantastic activities and events from 2019: for example, our ongoing work with Fleur Darkin, an acclaimed dancer and choreographer, and our centre’s first ‘visiting scholar-practitioner’, or an amazing one-man show called Achilles by Glasgow-based actor and playmaker Ewan Downie (aka Company of Wolves).  He did a this show for staff and students, and followed it up with a useful ‘Q and A’ workshop. We plan to collaborate with him on a related publication and his next theatrical project.

For all our events and activities in 2020, keep an eye on our wesbsite!

Jon Hesk, Director of the CPUGRD.

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