Euripides goes modern: HIPPOLYTUS VEILED

Posted on August 8, 2016 by Basement

Our blogger Jonty had a conversation with writer Nathan Joe about his new work Hippolytus Veiled, a modern re-imagining of the famous Euripides play opening August 16th.

When did you first come across Euripides’ play, and what made you want to adapt it?

I’ve probably read a dozen different iterations of Euripides’ play, but a couple of years ago I stumbled across Canadian poet Anne Carson’s translation. Alongside the play is an essay where she refers to the fact that Euripides wrote two versions of Hippolytus. According to most scholars, the first and lost version of Hippolytus offended audiences at the time, especially in its portrayal of queen Phaedra. Where the existing play portrays Phaedra as trying to resist her desires, the original supposedly had her embracing them.

Naturally the reputation of this non-existing play fascinated me, and eventually I was inspired by a series of provocations to recreate the story in my own words. Why did audiences hate the play? What would the play be like if it was staged today? How was Phaedra portrayed?

What do you think has been gained / lost in translation?

Because it’s not based on an existing text, most of what is gained or lost is just guesswork, but I like to think I’ve recaptured the spirit of the lost play with all of Phaedra’s “chain smoking nihilism” (Anne Carson’s words) intact.

Some of the poetic language you’d expect have been traded off for more colloquial or modern touches, and I’ve also removed outdated devices such as the chorus and the existing play’s deus ex machina. But there should be no mistaking the play for a contemporary domestic drama.

It’s basically a good opportunity to see an alternate version of a classic play through a modern and Kiwi sensibility. Just don’t expect a historically accurate piece of classical Greek theatre. Less translation and more interpretation.

Medea, Lysistrata, The Chorus – we’ve seen quite a few adaption of Greek classics lately in Auckland, any thoughts on why?

The Greeks classics have been pretty hot over in the UK recently, especially with theatres like the Almeida doing a whole season of them. Auckland tends to have a good sense of what is happening internationally, so our local theatre tends to reflect that. With Medea and Oedipus; The Chorus, it’s also simply just a case of producing and bringing over existing works that have proven themselves to be successful.

At the heart of most Greek stories is a sense of urgency and crisis with the state of things. That seems pretty pertinent right now, and naturally theatremakers want to tell stories that address these anxieties. Medea inverts the original myth and looks at the world through the eyes of two children, capturing both the fear and wonderment. Lysistrata mocks war, poking fun at its seriousness and the people who want to start it. And Oedipus; Chorus is really about the ruin of a city, told through the eyes and voices of its citizens. While the actual success of how well these adaptations talk about the world right now is debatable, the themes are as timeless as ever.

Most importantly the Greeks understood theatre as a communal experience. When we’re competing against the spectacle of film and tv, that’s a helpful idea to remember.

What has been the most difficult part of the production?

Wrestling with the text’s inherent misogyny has been a big one. The character of Hippolytus is one of the earliest woman-haters in the theatre history. Add to the fact that the female characters aren’t exactly the most moralistic. We’ve had countless conversations about it as a group. I’ve had countless conversations about it with other people. In the end, these characters aren’t representatives for everyone, and treating them like they are is a mistake. The whole point of Greek Tragedy is that the characters are bigger than life, even if their concerns are universal.

That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a problematic play. But that’s also part of it’s appeal for me. Theatre should be problematic. It should pose difficult situations, characters and ideas. Having your own values reflected onstage is great, but having those values shattered and expectations subverted is even better.

What are you working on next?

I’ve been sitting on a couple of projects for a while now. Some I like, some I’m not so sure about anymore. There’s a low-key science fiction play I’m working on, but I’ve also been tinkering with the idea of rewriting my very first play (which has not been produced). The struggle for me is knowing what I actually want to write versus what I feel like should be writing though. Freedom can be a terrifying thing.

Hippolytus Veiled will be on in the Theatre from August 16 – 20. More information on the piece and links to book can be found here. You can check out more of Jonty’s writing on his blog