Once every three years, the Cambridge Greek Play returns – Miriam Balanescu speaks to director Dan Goldman to find out what’s in store
Image © Zoe Birkbeck
A tradition first taking root in 1882, the Cambridge Greek Play was not, as one might expect, founded by classicists. Two archaeologists, seeing other Greek stage productions, set about reconstructing ancient Greek theatre with pinpoint accuracy, starting off with Sophocles’ Ajax.
Since then, this dramaturgical form of time-travelling has become a treasured staple of Cambridge’s cultural heritage and snowballed in scope; over time, the all-student productions welcomed professional directors. Swarms flock to see it, among them thespians, school students and the simply curious.
“The joy of the play is it brings something dead to life,” enthuses Dan Goldman, director of this year’s programme. “To experience something that is deemed academic and experience it as alive, fun and entertaining is what we hope for.” He also believes it will spark, for students, a long-term interest in Greek culture and theatre.
This is not Dan’s first time directing the Greek Play: back in 2019, the founder of the Tangram Theatre Company was at the wheel of Oedipus at Colonus, set in the thoroughly modern surrounds of a hospital. “You learn so much doing it the first time,” Dan says. “You make many mistakes, because it’s such a strange beast of a show.”
The year-long process sees the director pitch to the Greek Play committee, haul a creative team on-board, cut lines down, then send students off for the summer with Greek to learn – all before intensive six-week rehearsals. “When you work with students, what you get is plasticity,” explains Dan, who has previously collaborated with a mix of both professionals and amateurs. “What you might not get is heavy use of craft, experience and technical know-how – the counterpoint of that is bravery, open-mindedness and a positive attitude. As the cast have had fewer opportunities to be on stage because of the pandemic, there’s an even more raw, open mentality.”
Dan’s picks are rare relics: The Persians is the only survivor of Aeschylus’ Phineas trilogy, the shortest existing tragedy, while Euripides’ Cyclops is the last remaining satyr play, marrying comedy, tragedy – and some explicit content. Traditionally, following the performance of two harrowing tragedies, satyr plays were a way to lighten up and let loose. “We’ve found a way that we’re going to do the private parts,” says Dan, comparing the play to a “palette cleanser”.
Having already directed Sophocles, Dan was excited to “complete the trilogy” of tragedians. The first, The Persians, sees a king return home in disgrace having invaded Greece with his formidable military force, to no avail. “The fact that it’s the Greeks telling this story and feeling sorry for the enemy that lost, saying you should never have attacked in the first place, is quite incredible,” muses Dan. “I chose the play before the war in Ukraine, but there are strong similarities. The main reason I went with it was Covid-19, and our incompetent leaders standing at lecterns and saying ‘X’ number of people died today – this national tragedy emerging because of incompetence.”
Expect the unexpected with this year’s plays – which have been given a sci-fi flavour. “We’ve gone for something that is timeless, almost futuristic, in the way that Star Wars has sand planets and people are dressed for those.” More 300 than classic theatre, Dan says, “we’ve got an enormous Cyclops puppet, this 12-foot monster”.
On why the Cambridge Greek Play endures, Dan believes it’s a combination of the city’s elite past and students seeking sanctuary from the stresses of academia. “Cambridge is still quite a sheltered space and theatre is an area where you get to be anarchic and chaotic,” Dan insists. “Theatre is anti-establishment – and Cambridge couldn’t be more establishment.”
The Cambridge Greek Play is now showing at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday 22 October. Tickets are available here.