In april this year RADA's MA Theatre Lab students travelled to Greece to perform their devised ensemble production of Women Of Troy at the International Youth Festival of Ancient Drama in Ancient Messene, and at the Municipal Theatre of Kalamata. Hadleigh Harrison documented the experience throughout.
It doesn't feel like only yesterday we were rehearsing the final touches of Women of Troy in a basement in London. Grey London. Cold and rainy London. Having put in a tremendous amount of effort all last week re-jigging, re-working, scrapping and starting again – all part of the artistic process – our travel-worn spirits were lifted by the sight of the Taygetus mountain range, azure skies and beating sun of southern Greece! We had taken on some generous feedback as we worked on our Women of Troy within the time constraints; having laid down the foundations of the previous weeks’ work, we had by now 'killed our babies' (a very Greek tragedy concept, surely) by sacrificing our favourite moments over and over again. The general consensus is that we now have a show on our hands – one that is indisputably ours, and one we feel proud to show the people of Messini and Kalamata.
We touched down at Messini Airport at noon, touched base with Andrew (our Course Leader) and (although we were mostly zombified by the crack-of-dawn flight) received the Theatre Lab team itinerary for the next few days. I reckon between the fourteen of us we managed to remember all of it, but I'm sure we all heard what was first on the agenda – food! Walking through the sleepy streets of Messini town, we found our restaurant and our table laid for fourteen, outside in the small, sunny boulevard. We were certainly no longer in London. Dishes began to appear and the most delicious and fresh Greek food – salads, olive oil, feta and chicken – came pouring out of the small restaurant. Though the food was unexpected in flavour and abundance, the Greek hospitality we encountered from that first afternoon was something we were all very thankful for. They taxied us in their cars from the airport, provided a veritable banquet and made sure we were all content and looked after. We slept off the meal with a much-needed afternoon nap.
However, the Labbers are never ones to become complacent for too long, so next up was a rendezvous in a basement – at the glamorously named Hotel Kleopatra – where we had one last rehearsal before our show in the ancient city the following morning. This final rehearsal was to tighten any loose screws and to offer some final reflections on our journeys within the play. Whether protagonist or chorus, each member must have their own journey – a trajectory within the story’s framework that is both personal and cohesive as part of the ensemble and overarching themes. We are like chords, where each individual note is vital to how the chord will ultimately sound: the chorus feeds into the protagonists and vice-versa. After all, this is a devised ensemble piece and this unity is essential for the energy of the play.
Personally I was eager – if somewhat nervous – to perform, as we have been given the privilege not had by many to perform on this ancient stage, in no less than one of its great tragedies. Every one of the Lab wished to deliver an exciting and genuine piece of theatre. I felt we had a reputation of past years to live up to as well as the responsibility to be cultural ambassadors for RADA. We were yet to perform to a real audience, let alone in the open air. As I was writing this, the group were all getting some sleep (after yet more yummy food!) before the early start tomorrow, where we were to unleash what had become our play for the very first time.
First thing: 7.00am wake-up call. Standing on the balcony I watched the sunrise breaking above the mountains to the east, with mist congealing in their blue shadows, across the scattered houses and gardens and all the way towards the sea. Definitely still not London.
While having our continental breakfasts, the company blearily appeared in clumps, but as the coach came to collect us Paul (our director) was nowhere to be seen. Luckily, he had just overslept after the long day yesterday; someone dragged him out of bed, and we were all ready to go! The coach took us twenty kilometres north of the town of Messini into Mount Ithome, where the ancient city lies. There was a palpable excitement as the company focused themselves, reviewed cues and specific moments, or chattered about the ever-dramatic views from the coach – all fields of gorse and fresh spring greenery. The road became steeper and the scattered ancient city began to appear in the valley below, the ruins peeking through the green. It dawned on me that we were to honour the tradition of theatre that may well have been born in this country, in a place not unlike Messene.
As we scrambled off the coach the sun was beating down, and it wasn’t even ten o'clock. Today was going to be hot. The ancient city revealed itself slowly at first with a few ruins, but then more columns appeared – more foundations of what would have been grand structures – and suddenly the original theatre loomed ahead. This was not, however, where we would be performing (for starters, there's no usable stage). Instead we were performing at the small amphitheatre (the ‘eklesterion’), which was primarily used for political debates in ancient times. Standing at the top, we looked down its tiered marble seats and the valley descending behind it, all the way down to the distant sea. We wandered down its steps, all of us in awe, absorbing the amphitheatre. This space, this stage and the very mountains around us must have been witness to actors and their plays telling stories – undoubtedly like Women of Troy – for a thousand years, ending 1500 years ago. But before I had time to consider the importance of the privilege bestowed on us, it was time for the MA Lab to be ready: the audience began to arrive.
We cleared up a few key blocking segments in this new space before we were led away to our prep space. The audience was certainly much larger than I would have guessed, as the amphitheatre was deceptively compactly designed to pack in a large number of people. The seats were full soon enough as the hillside became warmer and warmer – and we also needed a proper warm-up. As the opening announcements and musical presentations took place we withdrew to the work sheds at the side of the stage, where insects were swarming, to prepare. We went through our well-worn vocal exercises and stretches, ready for our première. Despite the warm-up and drinking plenty of water, my mouth was devoid of any moisture within moments.
A moment passed and it was time to perform, and we were hastily ushered to the side of the stage. Mentally focusing ourselves, the MA Lab took to the stage in our starting positions. The audience loomed up and around on the steep walls of seats, hundreds of eyes all on us, anticipating the RADA students’ performance. I noticed that as we said our first choric line in Greek, the sound of our voices boomed due to the construction of the amphitheatre, and easily reached up and around to every member of the audience. My overriding memory of the performance, as it flashed by, is the rawness of the energy. From the moment we stepped on stage, our efforts in creating a sense of invocation to the dead, to the gods and to the ghosts of the past were concentrated in this very place. I believe we found a communion not only with each other, but also with the ghosts. We found a new meaning of the ancient text as we performed, honouring the hallowed ground of Messene.
At one moment as the hapless Astyanax (yours truly) waited off stage, I was able to witness the play from the outside, up amongst the audience. Our choreography and ensemble blocking really did make use of the space in a way that was dynamic and was successful at conveying the story in essence, even if the dialogue may not have been understood. This, I believe, is the sign of an effective performance. We were carried through the performance as vessels of the text telling this ancient story, our physical and endurance training from the Lab course beginning to show itself. In the sweltering sun, and despite the much larger audience (and the bloody great big beetles crawling over our faces and diving into our hair), we the MA Lab, a diverse group of very disparate people with different skills and experiences, came together as an ensemble in front of an audience outside of RADA for the first time. A show is never truly realised until it is performed in front of a living audience, and for our first performance the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
After the show, countless young people from the audience came to thank us and all seemed genuinely privileged to see us perform, wanting pictures and shaking our hands. It was very touching. I suppose it is a unique occasion and they were very thankful to have us there – and, of course, we were awfully thankful and honoured too. A few more photos in this stunning site and we trudged back to the coaches, without much time to truly explore the wonders of this beautiful and hallowed ground.
We were then invited to Andrew's village for a celebratory feast. Greek wine flowed, and the freshest home-made feta cheese and most tender roast lamb I have ever eaten had been graciously prepared for us by the local family-run taverna. We were all happy and exhausted; nevertheless, to walk off the food we climbed up the hillside to Andrew's home overlooking the Bay of Messini. More wine, coffee and conversation flowed as we explored the grounds, through the olive trees and down to a well that pre-dated the building. However, it was soon time for feedback from Andrew on our performance: no rest for the Labbers. Of course a show is always in rehearsal and an artist should never get complacent, and feedback should be given heed in order for any artistic development. And so, upon the roof terrace with the sea below and the sun setting, we listened openly. It was an emotional close to an emotional day, but an intensely profound one as well.
We were shuttled back into the town of Messini for supper. Some of the local students who had come to see our show had organised an impromptu trip (for those of us who were not too tired) to a local art gallery. Some of the more courageous students eagerly asked us questions about our training back home and we answered, student to student. As we left the gallery, the students had gathered outside: a girl with a guitar and a large group of the students who had come to see us sang songs – some popular Greek classics as well as some Adele (and Nirvana for me!). It was a singularly amazing and unforgettable moment. It hit home just how much it must have meant for them to have us there. Exhausted and stuffed, we wandered through the town, the Lab and our Greek entourage singing happily. It was a truly joyful close to the day for everyone involved.
Ah! We were able to have little bit of a lie-in today, but on the agenda after breakfast was a trip into the countryside to a village primary school to interact, run a theatre workshop and teach the pupils. We weren't quite sure what to expect – what kind of students, what age and what sort of plan would be in store – as we walked into the playground of their small school, greeted by the pupils all waiting for us. Having broken the back of the first show and adjusted to the much more relaxed Greek pace, the Lab were going to have a fun-filled day.
It turned out to be a very rewarding experience, workshopping with a group of Greek children, and was a wonderful come-down after the emotional high of the performance yesterday. The children couldn't speak much English, so we had our resident Athenian Labber Alexandros as our translator. We divided into two groups to play some games: a Lab-lite version of some of warm-up games, as well as some of the exercises from the MA Lab back home. Good old-fashioned 'tag' was played and some other bits and bobs, and we demonstrated a few scenes from Women of Troy, leaving out the grisly bits.
They already knew the story very well when asking them questions, and they seemed particularly to enjoy the songs from the show! Invited to watch one of the student plays, we gathered in their classroom and sat amongst the kids for their play called The Magic Pillow, in which a king and his subjects experience nightmares from a pillow that has been cursed. It was great – definitely giving us Labbers a run for our money! After chatting and playing with the kids it was time to leave. We reluctantly waved goodbye as we walked into the tiny town centre for some strong Greek coffee in the form frappes (plus cakes, naturally) while we waited for our ride. We noticed that on one of the local newspapers the MA Lab was the front-page article photograph, featuring all of us in the amphitheatre in the middle of Women of Troy. Locally famous already! Then it was back to Messini town for lunch and then to the beach, where most of us had our first swim of the year in the Mediterranean, and then worked on our tans and soaked in the sun. It was the first snatch of a holiday, a relaxing reward and the first time we could really just vegetate after a busy term and intensive rehearsal period.
Or was it? Of course not – no rest for the Labbers, and so we found ourselves getting cosy in the hotel basement once again. The MA Lab strive for the best, and it was necessary to integrate some ideas suggested from the feedback Andrew had given us after the first show. In this run-through we experimented and played with some ideas and let loose with whatever we were feeling. It was an extreme run, in terms of emotions and physicality. Though much of the physical playing of the ideas may have gone too far, or didn't work within the flow of the piece, the intentions behind them were certainly effective. It was agreed to retain some of these deeper, more profound convictions as internal intentions. Taking these intentions and embodying them in the subtler playing of what we had previously rehearsed would produce a deeper and more powerful playing and invocation. A show is never really finished, even after having performed it to an audience. Many nuances and elements do not become apparent until thrown into relief by an audience. After a warm, relaxing day it was time to get some rest before our show in Kalamata in an actual urban theatre.
Unlike previous Labbers, who had only performed in the amphitheatre, we had the opportunity to breathe life into the play once again and dig a little deeper, this time between the four walls and footlights of the Municipal Theatre of Kalamata.
A show is different in any new space, whether that is a rehearsal room, amphitheatre or black-box. The theatre in Kalamata was once a factory that had previously housed an electricity company; here the heat and insects would not be such an issue. However, not having performed it on the stage’s unknown dimensions before, the play required some logistical evaluation by our director to ensure we could be seen on stage at all times and not wander off the wings somewhere! This would be the last time in the planned future that we would be performing Women of Troy and we wanted to send off our show with the same, if not more, of the commitment we had already demonstrated in the amphitheatre. Stretching and vocal warm-ups were had, and the company were raring to go.
The show felt as though it were over in an instance, and the general feeling I had this time was perhaps more comfortable, the energy less raw and more refined. Without the sun and the sacred energy of the amphitheatre, and with only the darkness stretching out above the audience, Women of Troy required slightly defter playing to work up to the same energy. Our more technical aspects of the MA Theatre Lab training were necessary to project our voices and command the space. The successful transposing of the play into a totally different space, without the loss of all the power that it had in Messene, demonstrated how far we had developed as an ensemble. With subtle and minor adjustments to our playing, the dynamic and essence of the play was honoured and our adaptability as a group was impressive to see (from the point of view of Astyanax, this time banished to the back of the theatre). Interestingly, several company members noted what a novelty it was not to see the audience for once, because in training and our open classes, the audience are always visible in the stark working lights at RADA. You also forget how hot it gets under those stage lights! (still no match for that midday sun though).
After the performance, we were all given a pleasant surprise in the form of a Maria Callas tote-bag with some goodies inside. All this Greek tragedy had worked up our appetites (like soldiers, a theatre company runs on its stomach). The MA Lab were guided into town for some traditional filo pastry pies and coffees, and were able to see the lively city of Kalamata, which is quite unlike sleepy Messini. While the rest of the company visited a Frankish fort in the north of Kalamata, I met up with some Greek relatives for the first time, which made an already unique trip that little bit more special and personal. They had heard of our show from Greek news sources online and wished they could have seen it. All I could do was wax lyrical about how exciting it was to perform in the ancient city of Messene – and about the food. I also showed off a line of Greek text from the play, which they found exceptionally poetic despite my mangled pronunciation. We could all agree however, on this first encounter, that art is happiness! I met up with the rest of the Lab later for some more celebratory beach time and swimming, really kicking back with only dinner ahead of us.
To end our adventure in Greece, we walked into a quieter part of town where our host Gorgos had prepared a meal and drinks at an acquaintance's taverna, where we feasted on yet more delicious Greek cuisine. None of us complained at the sight of more feta or lamb, as it was of course delicious. After a few drinks, with what last dregs of energy we had left, we attempted some Greek dancing to various degrees of success. When in Greece...
Absolutely pooped from a crammed few days, it was time to part ways. Several Labbers, however, went into town for ice-cream (the madmen) while others went to experience the Kalamatian nightlife. Most of us went to bed totally exhausted and stuffed but with a real sense of accomplishment. The incredible experiences whizzed behind my heavy eyes that I – as well as the rest of Lab – are unlikely to ever forget.