Writer and producer Máirín O’Hagan introduces Barefaced Greek, who make accessible short films using text from Greek drama in the original language. Along with director Helen Eastman and actors from the films, Máirín will be sharing some of Barefaced Greek’s work at the ICS on 12th June 2018. Further details about the event are available at the bottom of this post.
Back in 2015, I set up Barefaced Greek, alongside director Dr. Helen Eastman, to make new work with ancient drama. For the past few years, we have been exploring the relatively uncharted territory of making modern, short films, using text from ancient drama, in the original language. We wanted to bring to life the drama and poetry of works written to be spoken aloud, and reanimate what some call a ‘dead’ language. Discovering and learning ancient Greek through the very textbooks used by my father and grandfather was a mysterious experience, filled with a sense of history, but drama is something that really comes alive in performance.
If drama students want an encounter with Shakespeare, not only are there plenty of live performances going on round the country at any given time, there is also a wealth of online material, where celebrated actors ‘give’ their Hamlet in an instantly accessible YouTube clip. The same is not true for Classical Greek drama, and teachers (myself included) find themselves using the same few videos (such as Tony Harrison’s wonderful Oresteia at the National Theatre) in an attempt to enliven lessons for new learners. Moreover, the complexity of the act of translation means that each adaptation or translation is fraught with competing pulls between sense, metre, sound, and even the question of whether to de-alienate an ancient, alien culture to seem more accessible to whichever time and culture we are translating into. For my part, the strangeness of the sound of Greek language, which its musical variation of vowel length and sound, and striking stringing of consonants, brings an atmosphere and intensity so much more suited to tragedy than the clipped English of received pronunciation. How much more chilling is an ‘aiai!’ or an ‘oimoi!’ than an ‘oh!’ or ‘ah!’!
Having worked together on recordings of original Greek language poetry, and the Cambridge Greek plays of 2010 and 2013 (Helen went on to direct the 2016 productions, too), Helen and I were certain that we were in love with original language performance, and that we wanted to make sure it was something that everyone could have access to. The divide between Classics education in private and state schools is much discussed, and it felt imperative to us that our work should be free, accessible, online, and the sort of thing that a teenager might find accidentally through Facebook or YouTube.
Teenagers, fortunately, are used to watching subtitled video content on YouTube, which brings us to another benefit of Ancient Greek not being a spoken language: if English speakers are watching our films with subtitles, this means that any nationality in the world can watch them with subtitles, too. As it is spoken nowhere, Classical Greek is as ripe for study and enjoyment anywhere. And so begins our new challenge, to provide subtitles in as many language as possible to our existing collection of films. With support from the ICS, we are looking to broaden the reach of our videos from the English and French titles which are already available, to share our films around the world. Subtitles, of course, reintroduce the complexities of translation, but in film these are governed by a stronger requirement: they must be short enough to read on the screen, leaving, I hope, space for the sound of the original language to dominate.
We are very much looking forward to screening our first collections of films at the ICS in June, following on from our first exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum last April. We will be screening and discussing work from Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes. The public discussion that follows will include our director and producer, as well as actors from our film series, who will be able to shed light on the startling experience of learning Greek for performance.
In the meantime, for those interested, four of our films are available to watch on YouTube or via our website now, and might provide the perfect revision breaks for any students currently working towards their exams…
by Máirín O’Hagan
Editor’s note: The ICS looks forward to welcoming Máirín and her colleagues for ‘New films, old drama: and evening with Barefaced Greek’, which will feature a film screening and an evening of lively conversation on 12th June. This is a free public event, and all are welcome, but booking is essential. School groups are most welcome to join us. For further details and booking information visit the event page.