Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Dancing Homer by Caroline Lawrence

Zeus's box of trinkets and props
Last week I saw two dramatic stagings of Homer's Iliad. The first was Simon Armitage’s The Last Days of Troy at the Globe. It was interesting, but never gripped me. I felt that sense of detachment I usually get at the theatre, that I am just watching actors play a role. I also found the production far too ‘British’ for my taste, with the red-haired model Lily Cole as Helen and one of my old Cambridge professors as Zeus. OK, it wasn’t really one of my old professors, but Richard Bremmer might well have been. He portrayed the king of the gods as a rake thin, absent-minded intellectual in linen trousers and sunhat with a box of trinkets for sale. 

The second interpretation took place a few days later in the basement of the cruciform building at UCL (which required the help of Ariadne and her ball of thread to find.) On one of the hottest days of the year, about forty people filed into a lecture hall usually devoted to medical lectures in order to watch a reading and dance called 'Dancing Winged Words'. 

Then a slightly sweaty Greek professor began to read passages from Richard Lattimore's translation of the Iliad while an androgynous woman in her mid-thirties danced it out. 

The effect was electric, like a punch in the stomach or a hand around the throat. Not usually one for tears, my eyes welled up again and again. There was something incredibly powerful and primal about the combination of Homer’s poetry and a single dancer inhabiting half a dozen different parts. Deb Pugh moved fluidly between depicting fiery Achilles and dour Hector, between fickle Aphrodite and vengeful Hera. She flickered from god to mortal, man to woman, alive to dead. She wore a tunic the colour of a bloody liver and her wiry limbs and boyish physique made her equally believable as a warrior as goddess. Barefoot and grunting – without props of any kind – she swung a sword, lifted shield, fired arrows, died and lived. Once or twice the reader, professor Antony Makrinos, wandered into the action and allowed her to cling to him or cover his eyes. Sometimes spare but moving piano music played. 

The whole thing was even more artificial than the Globe version but for some reason it worked. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the production, combined with the skill of the reader, performer, musician and director that gave this low-tech interpretation of Homer’s great epic its emotional impact. 

During the performance, part of UCL's one-week Summer School in Homerit came to me that I was watching something close to Roman pantomime. The only real difference was that the dancer was female not male and not wearing a mask, and that the music was pre-recorded piano rather than the usual small group of wind, string and percussion instruments. 

I have always found it fascinating that of the three most popular types of entertainment in Imperial Rome, one is quite forgotten. 

The most popular entertainment was the chariot race. Not everybody enjoyed beast fights and gladiatorial combats (Seneca for example) but almost everybody loved the racetrack or ‘circus’ Hence the famous phrase of Juvenal ‘bread and circuses’, referring to the food and entertainment that will keep a populace happy.

But the forgotten entertainment is pantomime. Not what we think of as pantomime today (a guy in white face trying to get out of an invisible box), a Roman pantomime troupe usually consisted of one male dancer (the pantomimus), a small chorus and a few instruments consisting of wind, string and percussion. The singer sang the story while the pantomimus danced it out. He wore a mask, often two-sided, so he could show different profiles to the audience, and with a closed mouth as he did not need to speak. The troupe mostly acted out stories from Greek mythology and were therefore slightly more highbrow that mime or comedy. 

I give my readers a glimpse of pantomime in my fourteenth Roman Mystery, The Beggar of Volubilis, where Flavia Gemina and her friends fall in with a small travelling troupe consisting of one dancer, one female singer and two musicians. 

When I was researching pantomime for my book, the source I found most useful was a succinct article by the German scholar Wilfried Stroh in the book Gladiators and Caesars (translated by Anthea Bell). Stroh emphasises how popular Roman pantomime dancers were, often filling Roman and Greek theatres. Their skill, claims Stroh, was probably superior to anything we can imagine in dance today. It is strange, he concludes, that no modern dancer has yet tried breathing new life into the fine artistic genre of Roman pantomime, which integrated as it did music, dance and poetry. 

Last week I caught a glimmer of what Roman pantomime might have been like and I think I understand its great appeal. I hope that Professor Makrinos and his team – and/or others – will go on to explore this forgotten but powerful form of storytelling.

Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries for kids 8+ are all available in Kindle or eBook format. 


Sue Purkiss said...

Sounds amazing!

Ann Turnbull said...

I would love to have seen that!