Scholars frequently debate the applicability of contemporary theatre theories and acting techniques to Greek tragedy. Evidence both for and against such usage, however, is usually drawn from textual analyses which attempt to find support for these readings within the plays. Such arguments neglect the performative dimension of these theories. This article demonstrates an alternative approach by considering a case study of a Stanislavskian-inspired production of a Greek tragedy. Taking Katie Mitchell’s 2007 Royal National Theatre production Women of Troy as a paradigmatic example, the article explores the application of a Stanislavskian approach to Euripides’ Troades . I argue that Mitchell’s production indicates that modern theatre techniques can not only transform Greek tragedy into lucid productions of contemporary relevance, but can also supplement the scholarly analysis of the plays. The Stanislavskian acting techniques are seen to work like a domesticating translation, recreating themes and emotions from the extant tragedy in a powerful way that enhances the performative dimensions of the play and counters the idea of a fixed Euripidean meaning. The article concludes that a performative methodology is essential for reception scholars and performance historians who debate the applicability of a Stanislavskian approach to Greek tragedy.
Psychological realism is a foundational element in almost all current naturalistic productions that seek to tell a story and evoke a response through linear, character-driven narrative. Audiences consequently often expect actors to perform an embodied representation of the psychological complexities of the characters and story being staged. Despite this, scholars frequently argue against the application of contemporary acting techniques to Greek tragedy. 1 They also contest the notion that the characters portrayed in the extant texts are formulated in a way that invites such psychological exploration 2 ; Pat Easterling, for example, has stated that ‘No one any longer asks the equivalent, in relation to Greek tragedy, of the question “How many children had Lady Macbeth?”, naïvely supposing that the stage figures can be studied as if they were beings with a continuing off-stage existence.’ 3 Such arguments are usually based upon evidence drawn from textual analyses of the ancient plays or a consideration of the original performance contexts. They downplay the extent to which theatre practitioners continue to ask such questions of Greek tragedy. In this article, I explore this phenomenon and argue that a performative methodology, which considers the processes that these practitioners undertake and their resulting performances, offers a new perspective on these debates and is an approach of particular interest to reception scholars and performance historians.
This article takes Katie Mitchell’s 2007 Royal National Theatre (RNT) production 4 of Euripides’ Troades5 as a paradigmatic example to consider the way psychological realism can affect the interpretation and communication of an ancient play. Mitchell’s directorial approach is explicitly based upon the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski, and as such this article explores the specific impact of a contemporary interpretation of a Stanislavskian approach involving psychological realism. It works with full knowledge that Mitchell’s style is not representative of all interpretations that exist under the rubric of psychological realism. 6 My discussion begins with an introduction to Mitchell’s unique Stanislavskian approach, and the ways in which this contrasts with current scholarly views about Greek tragedy. To explore the practical effects of Mitchell’s method, I then conduct a semiotics-based performance analysis of three scenes in her production, and the creative processes underlying them. 7 These include the opening scene, one central scene, and the denouement. 8 This methodology allows the individual signifiers of performance, including elements of the mise-en-scène , text, and performance segmentation, to be compounded to reveal the potential meanings offered to an audience. 9 By comparing Women of Troy with the text of Troades and other performance receptions of the play, I demonstrate how Mitchell’s direction ultimately transformed Euripides’ script into a new play of explicit contemporary relevance. My approach reveals that a performative methodology can help one to understand ancient tragedies as performance texts, and indicates that scholars should consider such works in tandem with other forms of analysis when making claims about character, and the applicability of psychological realism, in Greek tragedy. 10
Mitchell is renowned for her Stanislavskian-based approach and has been actively developing it since she studied directing in Russia, Poland, Georgia, and Lithuania during her 1989 Churchill Fellowship. 11 Her experiences observing Lev Dodin and Tadeusz Kantor during this time, and later studying under Tatiana Olear and Elen Bowman 12 — both of whom trace a direct line of tuition descending from Stanislavski to themselves and are third-generation students of his methods — have made Mitchell an unfailing proponent of his system, believing that ‘His [Stanislavski’s] work remains relevant whenever you find yourself directing a play that contains characters who are members of the human race, regardless of the time period they inhabit or the style of the play they belong to.’ 13 This contrasts explicitly with prevailing academic ideas about character and psychology in ancient drama. Simon Goldhill, for example, cautions against applying psychological realism to Greek tragedy, warning that ‘Searching for motivation or character development through modern psychological expectations can prove a frustrating effort’ as ‘Character may not be formed according to modern psychological lines.’ 14 The precise degree of character development, and particularly emotional and psychological depth, in tragedy is contentious, with academic views varying from Gould’s perspective that Aeschylus’ portrayal of Clytemnestra, for example, does not require or even allow us to probe her psychology, 15 to Budelmann and Easterling’s recent argument that there are textual clues that encourage the audience to read character and psychology into the drama, ‘[p]rompting spectators at the same time to read the feelings, thoughts, or intentions of the dramatis personae and to reflect upon the successes and shortcomings of the mind-reading process.’ 16 Any debate about such matters, however, is moot for practitioners such as Mitchell, who believe that the textual evidence is sufficient for performers to unearth characters with individual identities and ascertainable psychologies.
Although this core belief is rooted in a Stanislavskian approach, Mitchell’s overall style represents a unique adaptation of Stanislavskian ideas about psychological realism. This is not unusual as there is no one Stanislavskian system. There are many divergent strands to Stanislavski’s theories for interpreting and staging a play, such as the distinction between the American Method approach, which is most commonly attributed to Lee Strasberg and associated with the Actors Studio in New York City, and the more Continental Stanislavskian system. The former is often associated with using personal experiences and memories to bring an emotional truth to character and requires total immersion in the world of the play, while the latter usually combines emotional memory with a method of physical action that focuses on bodily rhythms as a trigger for emotion. 17 These differences emerged as Stanislavski constantly evolved his theories throughout his lifetime, and were exacerbated by his reluctance to publish his work. This consequently resulted in his students orally transmitting his ideas as they developed. 18 In all basic forms, however, a Stanislavskian approach dictates that believable performances require psychological accuracy, meaning actors must understand the psychological motivations and backstory of both the entire narrative and their individual characters, and perform an embodied and accurate representation of this. Mitchell assisted her actors in achieving such accuracy by employing three primary techniques: creating an extensive backstory for the production; constructing detailed psychological profiles for each character; and rehearsing the play with a focus on the biology of emotions, 19 all of which I will now discuss in depth to contextualize my upcoming performance analysis.
Mitchell assisted her actors in creating a psychologically realistic backstory by completing extensive research and writing exhaustive timelines for each character and event in the play. 20 The detailed backstory Mitchell developed during rehearsals included positioning the drama temporally in November of ad 2050 , exactly sixteen hours after the sack of Troy, and occurring (following an Aristotelian timespan) from dawn until nightfall. Individual timelines reveal Mitchell also invented a chronology of royal events, beginning with the marriage of Priam and Hecuba in ad 2016 and ending with the marriage of Deiphobus and Helen in ad 2050, as well as a Trojan War chronology from the ‘abduction’ (Mitchell’s word) of Helen in the summer of ad 2037 through to an hour-by-hour analysis of events from the moment the Trojan horse entered the city up to the present moment of the play; the stage manager’s running list even records that the actors were informed every night that ‘the time in Troy is 03:44am’ before the curtain went up. These exceptionally detailed timelines demonstrate how paramount it was for Mitchell to portray a realistic situation, and the personal information included, such as births, deaths, and marriages, proves that practitioners do indeed contemplate the biographies of their characters.
To ensure that the actors understood the psychological motivations of their characters, as well as their personal backstory and that of the play, Mitchell met with a psychologist during the rehearsal period and developed profiles for each character. The psychologist noted, amongst other things that: Cassandra might be manic depressive, as some sufferers believe they can predict the future; Hecuba must have had post-natal depression to have given up Paris earlier in the myth cycle 21 ; and the chorus might display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by the immediate circumstances of the play. Tendencies the psychologist ascribed to these conditions featured in Mitchell’s production, such as the diagnosis of mania including ‘Singing, undressing, spending money, delusions, nightmares, avoidance behaviour, restlessness, can’t work, no-relationships.’ 22 Mitchell assisted her actors in realizing these psychological profiles by working with them to portray such states with an accurate biology of emotions.
This work on the biology of emotions is a furthering of Stanislavski’s investigations into the physiological and emotional elements of performance, and particularly his reading of William James’ essay ‘What is an Emotion’ on cognitive science and physiology. 23 In this essay, James argues that humans react physically before consciously experiencing emotion. 24 He uses the example of a human encountering a bear, and asserts that a person in this situation immediately turns and runs while only later experiencing the emotion of fear. Mitchell received a 2001–04 fellowship from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to research these emotional and physiological elements of Stanislavski’s teaching 25 ; this included tutoring from neuroscientist Mark Lythgoe. Together Mitchell and Lythgoe studied the work of Antonio Damasio who, supported scientifically by brain-imaging techniques, builds upon James’ essay to argue that the gap between stimulus and emotional response is a half-second, and that during this half-second, before we are conscious of emotion, there are legible physical changes. 26 This information directly influenced the representation of emotion and character in Women of Troy .
The writings of James and Damasio pushed Mitchell to work on emotions in rehearsal by recreating the physical response they invoke in the body. Mitchell now simultaneously works inside-out, by asking her actors to invoke internally an emotional or psychological state, and outside-in, by replicating the physiological manifestation of emotions as based upon James and Damasio’s theories of emotional biology. 27 Although the latter technique may not be considered strictly Stanislavskian, Shevtsova and Innes convincingly argue it is a furthering of Stanislavski’s attempt to use physiology to find the corporeal impulses and manifestations of emotions, 28 differing from Stanislavski’s teachings only because of the aid of modern science. Furthermore, Blair, when speaking broadly about incorporating cognitive neuroscience into actor training, argues that such techniques result in ‘[a]n interpenetration of physiological and psychological factors going beyond the level or kind described by Stanislavsky, Strasberg, and others but which is certainly continuing in the direction implied by their systems.’ 29 Mitchell’s approach is unique in contemporary theatre and stands in opposition to other popular styles of acting, which ‘edit out’ these half-second gaps and privilege things such as diction over what Mitchell deems accurate representations of human behaviour. 30
Mitchell utilized a number of rehearsal exercises to apply these innovative acting techniques to Women of Troy . For example, she directed her cast through ‘slice of life’ exercises and assisted them in applying physical mannerisms discovered in these workshops to their characters. She describes this process as follows:
Mitchell asked her cast to enact scenes based on primary emotions, particularly fear, and themes she associated with the text, including war, family, power, and the collapse of moral order. They discovered that the most common physical reactions to these emotions and themes were: stillness, becoming stiff, and having an increased temperature. 32 This rehearsal exercise led to Mitchell’s actors embodying these characteristics throughout the production to create a more heightened form of theatre. 33 Mitchell additionally employed a number of devices in an attempt to make the audience experience the emotion of fear and its accompanying physical manifestations as well. For example, she attempted to frighten the audience through pyrotechnics. The production featured an explosion which was so realistic that the risk assessment was, literally, off the scale, and a fire fighter was present backstage every performance as a safety precaution. Mitchell hoped her use of an explosion would remind the audience of 11 September and directly forge a link between Euripides’ play and the current Iraq war. 34 Interestingly, however, this was Mitchell’s only explicit reference to contemporary warfare despite the fact that this link, as I will shortly demonstrate, was instrumental to her interpretation of the play. Instead of providing an explicit commentary on the situation in Iraq through the mise-en-scène , Mitchell attempted to make her audience focus on the interactions contained within Euripides’ script and the emotional responses such situations would evoke in today’s world. Her approach consequently encouraged an embodied understanding of the themes within the play.
Select an idea and ask the actors to think of a moment in their lives that relates to or embodies that idea. Ask them to imagine that their life is a very long film and encourage them to present a few minutes of that film exactly as it happened, without edits or corrections. Ask the actors to recall what happened, how it happened, when it happened and where. … After the exercise has finished, discuss it for five minutes. First, encourage the actors to make links between what happened in the exercise and moments or characters in the play. 31
These three primary processes added additional meanings to Euripides’ text and fundamentally transformed the form and performance style of the play. Yet, despite the ways in which Mitchell’s method altered the extant text, it may still be possible to supplement scholarly understanding about tragedy, and the role of character within this genre, by studying such Stanislavskian-inspired performances. The commonalities between Mitchell’s work and the emerging academic area which uses cognitive science to reconsider the performance context and character development in Greek tragedy, particularly with regard to emotion and physicality, testify to this potential. 35 Thinking about ancient drama through a cognitive science lens is a self-consciously anachronistic methodological approach for which there are numerous potential critiques, particularly with regard to the frequent tendency for such studies to treat both ancient and modern audiences as a collective entity. The cognitive turn, however, will undoubtedly continue to permeate research in reception studies and performance studies in the future. Despite the reluctance of some scholars to embrace the application of contemporary acting techniques to Greek tragedy, Mitchell’s use of cognitive science as part of a Stanislavskian approach shows the relevance of these methods, and the potential such productions hold for those wishing to consider emotions in Greek tragedy through cognitive science. Taking into account the insights gained from applying cognitive science to Greek tragedy in practice, no matter how much the resulting performances depart from the text, can only help further clarify ideas gained through other forms of scholarly inquiry. My analysis of the way Mitchell’s Stanislavskian approach came through in select moments from the beginning, middle, and end of her production, and the way it impacted upon her interpretation and communication of the Euripidean material, further exemplifies the benefits of this methodology.
The extent to which this approach affected Mitchell’s production can be seen in the differences between the Women of Troy prologue and the extant text. Instead of opening with a conversation between Poseidon and Athena about the sack of Troy and the future fate of the Greeks, Mitchell instead began with Hecuba’s monody. 36 The opening tableau preceding this visually depicted a group of eight women scattered across the stage in silhouette as the lights faded in. This revealed the setting: a cavernous space with a wooden floor, stone support beams, and corrugated iron patching covering the ground floor windows. Uncovered windows in a walled-in mezzanine revealed the shadow of another woman upstairs, pacing. Ladders against the stage left and right walls and a service lift upstage connecting the stage to the mezzanine implied the action was taking place in a warehouse environment and the soundscape, which incorporated ship horns and ocean noises coming from stage left, denoted that the location was a contemporary shipping port. 37 This implied that the women were in a liminal space, with their destroyed city stage right, and the ferries waiting to deport them stage left. The barrenness of the room revealed it to be a makeshift holding bay. In the opening moment, the women fidgeted, smoked cigarettes, and re-applied their make-up, which, combined with the pacing of the woman upstairs, implied a feeling of anxiety and a sense of entrapment. The women showed signs of a recent struggle: bruises were beginning to show on their flesh and their hair was matted and dishevelled. This was juxtaposed against their black tie costuming of floor-length evening gowns, high heels, and clutch purses. The costuming temporally placed the action immediately after the sack of Troy: the women had been ambushed by Greek soldiers while prematurely celebrating Troy’s victory.
Mitchell’s decision to begin Women of Troy with a shortened version of Hecuba’s monody meant that only a few minutes of performance elapsed before the entrance of Talthybius, who was joined by another two members of the Greek army. The relative number of Greek men to Trojan women, and their bureaucratic costuming of dark suits and clipboards, made them an imposing presence. The men proceeded briskly to inform Hecuba which Greek men she and her daughters had been assigned to as slaves, regularly consulting their clipboards efficiently to indicate their administrative, rather than decision-making, position within the Greek army. A fire alarm and accompanying red flashing lights interrupted this action and prompted the men to exit. Benny Goodman’s Swing Swing Swing then suddenly began to play over a loudspeaker, and the women immediately started dancing the quickstep partner-less, facing the audience in a straight line centre stage. 38
These opening scenes are revelatory as to the extent to which Mitchell’s method shaped her interpretation of the material and resulted in a unique production that departed from other performance receptions of Troades . This can be seen in the way that her ‘supertask’ and ‘throughaction’ governed the setting of the play and the emphasis placed within these scenes. Stanislavskian theory dictates that a formal analytic process must be applied to a script to outline the world of the play. This process involves: naming the supertask, or what the play should be about; setting tasks that instruct each actor what to do during each unit of the play; articulating actions that dictate what the actors must do to fulfil their tasks; and deciding on the throughaction of the play, which frames the tasks and actions to relate logically to the play’s perceived meaning. 39 Mitchell’s working notes reveal that she was initially inspired to stage Troades by what she perceived to be societal apathy towards the current conflict in Iraq. 40 She stated that Women of Troy is ‘[t]he most perfect play about the aftermath of war. I hoped that the production would therefore speak to the situation in Iraq now … and raise questions about the behaviour of victors and victims alike in a post-war environment.’ 41 She subsequently designed and directed the production around this notion, and positioned contemporary warfare as the supertask of her play.
Through this engagement Women of Troy joined a history of politically resistant productions of Troades . This extends back to the 1905 Royal Court production of Gilbert Murray’s translation, which was performed soon after the Boer Wars and interpreted as condemning the British role in this conflict. 42 Furthermore, just twelve years prior to Mitchell’s production the RNT produced a Troades that evoked the situation in the Balkan states and the first US invasion of Iraq. 43 Mitchell’s Stanislavskian approach, however, meant that the contemporary political parallels were advanced in a more unusual manner, and with more consistency and rigour than prior instances. This stemmed from Mitchell’s decision to tie the events of the play together with a socio-politically engaged throughaction.
Mitchell positioned the interactions and exchanges between the Greek soldiers and the Trojan prisoners of war as the throughaction of Women of Troy . She argued that ‘The real conflict is between these Greek officials and Trojan women … how these civil servants cope with what their masters have done. They are now on the ground having to deal with collateral damage.’ 44 By focusing on the dynamics of these exchanges, rather than empathetically upon the suffering of the women, Mitchell radically departed from any audience expectations developed from witnessing earlier ideologically engaged productions.
These prior interpretations arose from Murray’s analysis of Euripides’ intentions, in which he proposed that the Troades provided a critique of Athenian imperial policy, and in particular the sack of Melos by the Athenians in 416 bc [Thuc. 5.84–5.115]. 45 Although scholars remain divided over the extent to which Troades provided a commentary upon these events, 46 this has become the interpretation of Euripides’ play within the theatre and film industry, largely because of the ease with which it can be paralleled with contemporary conflicts to highlight oppressive or imperialistic regimes and sympathize with their victims. It can be seen in almost every notable production, including Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Troyennes , which was ‘[e]xplicitly conceived as a protest against French brutality in Algeria,’ 47 and Michael Cacoyannis’ 1971 film The Trojan Women , made during Cacoyannis’ self-imposed exile during the military junta in Greece (1967–74). 48
Mitchell’s translator references this reading in the introduction to his version of the play, and even goes on to state that the text is subversive and also contains an implied criticism of the Sicilian invasion. 49 Furthermore, Mitchell herself is on record supporting such an interpretation. She stated:
Mitchell’s production does, of course, reveal some evidence of this underlying interpretation, in that by evoking the current Iraq war she hoped it would cut through the ‘blocking mechanism’ that saw the public ignore the effects of war upon the people of Iraq and encourage her audience to be attentive to the repercussions of war for both sides of the conflict. 51 Yet, by additionally investigating the role of messengers and civil servants in warfare she provides a much more complex interpretation of the material, which made it difficult for audiences to determine where to place their sympathies. As the remainder of my analysis will make clear, Mitchell’s Stanislavskian approach allowed her production to pinpoint various subtleties with regard to character and emotion within Euripides’ script and asked the audience to contemplate what is at stake for both parties during the fallout from a war.
He [Euripides] was writing in the wake of the Greeks’ ruthless subjugation of the island of Melos for its refusal to side with Athens against Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. The play was triggered by his sense of moral outrage at what troops from his country had done to another country. 50
In addition to ensuring that the production thematically departed from prior performance receptions of Euripides’ Troades , Mitchell’s notion of the supertask and throughaction also had several tangible repercussions on her opening scenes. During the pre-production period she cut Don Taylor’s translation in half to clarify the intensity of the exchanges between the Greeks and Trojans, which she perceived as the key idea structure of the play. 52 She reduced the size of her chorus to consist of just seven women, and expanded the part of Talthybius into three characters, creating the additional Greek soldiers Chrysander and Sinon to portray interactions that were closer to the reality of exchanges between victors — and especially their civil servants — and victims in modern warfare. 53 She also gave the production a contemporary setting, yet nevertheless, as previously mentioned, avoided direct analogies with the Iraq war by making the exact location somewhat atemporal. For example, Mitchell specified to the actors that the play was set in the future, while staging it in a set visually based upon the architecture of modern shipping ports. She combined this with 1940s-style costumes and music. Rather than confuse the audience, this mismatch of temporalities gave the impression that the action of the play could be happening anywhere, at anytime, and implied a cyclical notion of history with the events of the play repeating themselves in ancient Greece, the Second World War, the current Iraq war, and potentially again in the future.
Although Mitchell’s Stanislavskian-based approach clearly saw her production alter the characterization and structure of Euripides’ script, it simultaneously transformed the text into a recognizable contemporary world where the content and characters are relatable and emotional investment by the audience is encouraged. Just like a translation can domesticate a script into a target language to retain, for example, the more intangible elements of language linked to resonance and style, Mitchell’s production testifies to how texts and modern theatre theories can work together to create something that is still respectful to Greek tragedy. Such a reception is more likely to reproduce the type of experiential feeling or response that one associates with these plays than a reception that fetishizes difference by being overly reverent to a fixed idea of a hermetically sealed Euripidean meaning. Mitchell’s opening tableau, for example, effectively communicated the psychological trauma that can be incurred in modern warfare by depicting a biologically realistic representation of post-traumatic stress disorder through the nervous and fidgety manner of the women in silhouette. The elaborate backstories allow the actors and audience to comprehend the performative representation of the story as they would any modern dramatic representation. Furthermore, some of the textual departures Mitchell made from Euripides’ script in her opening scene even provide additional supporting evidence for what scholars view as the prominent themes and outlook of the tragedy, as I will now demonstrate.
The most significant structural change Mitchell made to Troades was her removal of the divine prologue, which involves Athena requesting Poseidon’s assistance to punish the Greeks for displaying hubris following their victory and particularly for their failure to punish Ajax for his treatment of Cassandra. 54 Mitchell’s opening tableau visually established the time, location, and sense of recent suffering contained in this duologue. However, the exotragic prediction by the gods, which states that the Greek fleet will be shipwrecked on their homeward journey, was absent. This alteration is indicative of the way Mitchell’s Stanislavskian approach removed narrative content but shed light upon the overall emotional and psychological world of the play. 55
Poseidon’s agreement colours the remainder of the play with the knowledge that the Greeks will be punished for their acts of hubris. O’Neill argues that by emphasizing the ‘Known End’ and revealing that the Trojan women’s suffering is pointless, the audience’s ‘Universal Experience’ transcends pathos and the overall play becomes a strong anti-war statement. 56 K. H. Lee, in his commentary on Troades , further argues that this is one of the central lessons of the play: ‘[w]anton and impudent victors will in the end be no better off than those who have been vanquished. The conquerors will pay for all acts of ὕβρις and Nemesis will finally lead them also to a position of misery and hopelessness.’ 57 Throughout Troades the capriciousness of fate and the fickle nature of happiness is repeatedly emphasized, 58 and despite there being no peripeteia in the formal sense of the word, these ideas are central themes of the play. Although Mitchell omitted the narrative content relating to the notion of divine retribution for sacrilegious crimes, her interpretation of the material consistently foregrounded the overall idea of a tragic reversal of fate.
This can be seen in Mitchell’s black tie costuming of the Trojan women. This was determined by Mitchell’s Stanislavskian pre-production hour-by-hour analysis of events, which positioned the Trojan women at a celebration party for Troy’s victory prior to the play’s opening. The production thus visually juxtaposed the women’s former wealth with their future slavery. When abridging the script during this period Mitchell additionally chose to retain dialogue reflecting upon Troy before the city’s defeat. Furthermore, the social dance that featured in the opening segment of the play and on several other occasions during the production testifies to how her Stanislavskian approach emphasized the altered status of the Trojan women, here by focusing audience attention upon the absent male partners. Although the quickstep may appear to be a nod towards the choric roots of tragedy and a way of mediating Mitchell’s contemporary approach with the classical content, this is in fact a common Mitchell trope not specific to her work on Greek tragedy. Rather, the inclusion of dancing stemmed from Mitchell’s specific Stanislavskian approach; her rehearsal notes describe how the dancing was justified psychologically as being a ‘place to go’ for the women when the events of the play became too much. Movement director Struan Leslie further details that through the dancing ‘[t]he chorus makes a collective response to normalize and comfort themselves in the situation. The use of social dance became the signifier of something other, unspoken yet visible, and physically felt by the audience.’ 59 Leslie’s choreography expresses Mitchell’s ideas about the play, and the disintegration of relationships it contains, in a more abstract form. 60 It is inspired by European physical theatre and dance traditions such as that of Pina Bausch just as much, if not more so, than by classical ideas of choral formality. 61
The references in the mise-en-scène to Troy in more prosperous times performatively realize potential meanings contained within Euripides’ script regarding tragic reversals of fate, demonstrating why a performative approach, as opposed to a purely textual one, is a particularly useful way to approach the study of modern theories of performance and Greek tragedy. This can be seen in the way Mitchell’s interpretation parallels scholarly investigations into Troades ; Luschnig’s argument, for example, that the play is about the vanity of victory in war and that part of the text’s significance lies in its extension back to the time when Troy was prosperous as this highlights the ‘[u]tter waste and folly of war’ corresponds to Mitchell’s production. 62 Although Mitchell’s approach prevented her from communicating all of Euripides’ narrative content, it clearly facilitated a representation of some of the major themes of Troades in a lucid and arresting manner and can work in tandem with other forms of analysis to further exemplify various readings of the text.
Examining the changes Mitchell made to Cassandra’s scene provides further support for this argument. 63 Cassandra appears briefly in Euripides’ play in a frenzied state [306–461], carrying flaming torches and singing a wedding hymn before prophesying her upcoming death and rejoicing in the fact that it will occur simultaneous with the death of Agamemnon. In Mitchell’s production, Cassandra entered the stage running, carrying matches, waste paper, and a container labelled ‘flammable liquid’ with which she lit a number of fires on stage. While the Greek soldiers attempted to restrain her, she delivered her lines. She alternated between singing her lines and speaking to them at an unnaturally fast pace in a high-pitched voice, which resulted in them being incomprehensible. After Hecuba had removed the matches from her, Cassandra then climbed atop a table and removed her evening dress by pulling it down to her ankles. She stood, naked, delivering her prophecy in the same diction as before, while the chorus members attempted to re-dress her before the Greeks forced her offstage.
Mitchell’s direction of this scene once again suppressed the narrative’s focus on the characters’ future fates. This was compensated for by a concentrated study of the emotional and psychological effects of warfare, seen, for example, through Mitchell’s direction of Sinead Matthews’ Cassandra as embodying a manic depressive psychological profile. As Mitchell was committed to showing a manic state with an accurate biology of emotions, rather than conform to the requirements of naturalistic theatre and stage the scene with clear diction, the content of Cassandra’s prophecy was not communicated to the audience despite being retained almost in full. Although the mythological tradition dictates that Cassandra’s contemporaries do not believe her predictions, their content is important for the audience as it allows for both the transmission of the fabula of the play and the establishment of dramatic irony. She prophesies how the Greeks’ fortunes will shortly change by foretelling the ruin of the house of Atreus  and Odysseus’ ten-year homecoming [431–43]. Cassandra’s foreknowledge and its divine source position her dramatically on a similar level to the gods in the prologue, which Papadopoulou argues means she supplements and corroborates the central meaning established by the gods of ‘[t]he inevitability of the retribution which is to follow hors-de-scène for the Greeks.’ 64 Mitchell’s decision to turn this dialogue into manic and indecipherable speech made Cassandra’s role distinct from other interpretations. Yet, the performative rendering of this scene allowed numerous other meanings unrelated to the exotragic prediction to be brought to the fore via non-linguistic means.
This can initially be seen through the symbolism of Cassandra’s entrance. Cassandra’s arson replaces the Euripidean dialogue implying that Cassandra enters with two flaming torches [298–310]. The torches visually symbolize an Erinys, 65 a label Euripides has Cassandra attribute to herself later in the scene . Representing revenge, the symbolism of an Erinys can be seen to reinforce the notion of divine retribution established in the beginning of Euripides’ play. In performance, however, the power of this visual reinforcement is limited; even if Mitchell had retained the two flaming torches it is unlikely that the audience would have understood the symbolism of an avenging Erinys. In place of this, Mitchell has created a more general image of destruction and a psychologically realistic representation of mania. This simultaneously brings to life elements of the Euripidean text, and positions Cassandra’s character as representing the potential psychological effects of modern warfare. Papadopoulou supports the former concept when she argues that throughout Euripides’ trilogy fire and torch are used as symbols of destruction. 66 Mitchell’s directorial decision shows the visual power of this metaphorical connotation.
Analysis of the latter notion reveals how Mitchell’s Stanislavskian approach not only performatively realized the sense of suffering contained within Euripides’ play, but also how it additionally turned the characters into contemporary figures whose conditions are understandable to modern audiences. Although Matthews’ performance of a manic Cassandra was cause for contention, 67 it is representative of the reading of madness as a repercussion of wartime trauma some see within Euripides’ play. 68 Barbara Goff, for example, points out that:
The mania Matthews evinced when performing this scene is representative of such a reading. However, rather than depict the character as generically deluded, the specificity of the manic depression vocabulary and characterization fosters a deeper level of understanding from the audience. It is a profile developed by Mitchell’s psychologist in line with what the psychological consequences of Cassandra’s experiences during modern warfare might be. The arson, undressing, avoidance behaviour, and psychotic speech patterns featured by Matthews all contribute to a depiction of this specific form of mania. The use of nudity in this scene, in particular, shows the direct behavioural repercussions of Cassandra’s experiences and subsequent psychological illness, while simultaneously recapturing the horrific elements of Cassandra’s condition contained within the text. 70 By inviting the audience to engage with and relate to this character more completely, Mitchell encourages spectators to pay attention to the specific ordeal Cassandra has suffered and potentially gain insight into the overall sense of suffering and wartime trauma depicted by the play, which might be missed by those who view Cassandra’s madness as merely the result of Apollo’s curse.
Some critics contend that Kassandra has lost her mind under the pressure of the misery of Troy’s fall, and that rape and enslavement have deprived her of her reason. She is deluded with ‘the unclouded simplicity and happiness of one who in madness is oblivious to the real circumstances,’ or is in a state of frenzy. 69
Acting technique is paramount to anyone wanting to be a serious actor. It's quite easy to imitate a character or even an emotion, but where's the depth in that? How can you sustain or repeat again what you might have found intuitively? Do you even know what you did or how you did it?
The technique, however, will help you find a character, which in turn informs how you approach the text/script/written word. How do you bring the dialogue alive? How do you know what choices to make? The goal of a trained actor is to become a fully realised three-dimensional character, with a rich backstory. I must believe the character you play is truthful and not a cliche, a caricature, a thin external representation of someone who barely resembles a human being. I must believe what you say is real and that you're not reciting, spouting or commenting.
In order to help you understand, I will lay out the backbone of what I teach at RADA and around the world to professional and student actors alike. This is based around Stanislavski's acting technique and his seven questions which, over the years, I have adapted into 10 key acting questions every actor should answer in order to be a fully rounded and connected actor.
1. Who am I?
2. Where am I?
3. When is it?
4. Where have I just come from?
5. What do I want?
6. Why do I want it?
7. Why do I want it now?
8. What will happen if I don't get it now?
9. How will I get what I want by doing what?
10. What must I overcome?
1. Who am I?
The first question is dealing with the type of person you are. I'm sure if I asked you that question, you would be able to tell me about your family background, your parents, grandparents, siblings. You would be able to describe them in detail. Also the house you grew up in, what it looked like, inside and outside. Your favourite room, what you could see out of your bedroom window, the smells you remember. Your earliest childhood memories, the kind of games you played, family holidays. Your education, favourite teachers, best friends, times you got into trouble. Your first kiss, first job, your likes and dislikes, influences, attitudes, anecdotes. All these good, bad, funny, interesting experiences shape us into who we are today. Most people don't walk around with all these memories on their shoulders like baggage. They've seeped into our being, our muscles, our subconscious, allowing us just to be, to exist.
When you play a character in theatre, TV or film, you should know your character as well as you know yourself, so you can just exist and live. Of course that doesn't just magically happen, nor does it evolve just from rehearsals. As an actor you have to plant those memories, anecdotes and backstory.
So how do you build a character? Well, first a good script should give you some initial information about your character, and also what other characters say or think about your character can be very revealing. All this should be extracted and written down in a separate notebook. The next stage is research. You need to find out through detailed research what the history, economics, politics, music, art, literature, theatre, film, foods, fashion, religion might have been at the time the play was written, in order to know how you would have lived and what and who your influences were, just as you know these things in real life. Possible sources include the internet, films of the era and finding images of landscape, as well as going to museums, art and photographic galleries. Fill your mind with images - not facts and figures. The more visceral your understanding, the better.
The final stage in building a character, once you've filleted the script and completed your research, is to use your imagination to flesh out the details you've gathered and bring them alive. Don't underestimate the power and the necessity of your imagination in the acting process. You can't use your imagination without the backup of research and reading. Nor can you use your imagination alone.
2. Where am I?
You might find in the script a description of the room you're supposed to be in, including details such as the style and period of the furniture. What does it mean to you though? Is your character supposed to be familiar with the surroundings? Is it the first time you've entered this room? Is it a cosy cottage? A freezing barn? A familiar street? We usually behave differently depending on our surroundings. You need to establish your relationship with your environment because this affects the way you use yourself. For example, you wouldn't start walking around, touching ornaments and putting your feet up if it wasn't your home. The geography will have an impact too: playing someone from very cold northern climates such as Norway or Russia will be different to playing someone in a baking Mediterranean climate such as Italy or Spain.
3. When is it?
We need to know what season it is, what year, what time of day. We tend to carry ourselves differently in the colder months than we do on hot, muggy summer days. We would also hold ourselves differently if the piece was set at the turn of the century. We must be aware that we can't bring our modern physicality to a play that is of another period. People expressed themselves differently then and didn't slouch or use modern gestures.
4. Where have I just come from?
You need to work out what your character has been doing, where they've been. When you make an entrance on stage it shouldn't look as if you've just stepped on stage from behind the curtain. Even if that's true, you should have worked out during rehearsal where you would be coming from - the bathroom, having just brushed your teeth? The kitchen in the middle of baking an apple pie? The car after being stuck in traffic? Shopping? What is your state of being supposed to be on your entrance? Does it tell you in the text? Has your director informed you of what they would like it to be? Or do you have to invent it? What's just happened in the scene before? Have you just had an argument? Have you just been proposed to? Whatever the situation, you should always know your previous circumstances at all times. It can be good fun inventing it, and no entrance should ever be the same. Just think about real life: do you always enter your house in the same way every night? No. Where you come from will have conditioned your mood.
5. What do I want?
This is a key question. "Want" means what do you need, what is your intention, your motivation, your action? You should never walk on stage just to play a scene. You should always have an objective. Often in a good script, an objective is written into the scene: to end the affair, to propose, to move out. Your action can change from scene to scene but you should always work out what you are meant to be doing.
You may be in a scene, for example, where you have very little dialogue. Instead of sitting doing nothing, give yourself a physical action, which can be anything that fits your reason for being in that room, from making a salad to polishing your nails. Even if you are pulled away from what you're doing, so long as you're doing something, you've always got something to return to once you're no longer engaged in conversation. The importance of this is so that you don't look or feel silly on stage doing nothing. You must have a life on stage, you must have a purpose for walking and talking, otherwise you are in danger of "just acting", which is fake. Don't forget you're trying to be truthful and three-dimensional, and in real life, no one ever comes into a room and stands with their hands by their sides or sits with their hands in their lap and just talks.
6. Why do I want it?
You must always have a strong justification for your action. All right, perhaps in real life we don't always have a strong justification for everything we're doing but, particularly in the theatre, you always need one. Most plays present a heightened version of reality (this can be different for the naturalistic performances and stories we see on television, particularly in soap operas). Having a strong justification means you have a strong motivation.
7. Why do I want it now?
The "now" gives you an immediacy that is crucial in acting and in any drama. You must know why your motivation has to be right now, not before, not later but now. Why should we sit through two hours of this play if you're not that bothered about getting the money or the house or the power?
8. What will happen if I don't get it now?
The stakes should always be high. Otherwise so what? The consequences of not getting what you want should always be very important to you. If the high stakes are not clear to you in the play, you need to invent them, otherwise it will come across that you're not bothered at all about the outcome.
9. How will I get what I want by doing what?
This question brings us on to how you break down a script. How do you know how to play the line as opposed to how one should say the line? There's a big difference.
Once you've worked out what your action is (question 5) you then have to work out your smaller action, which is called an "activity". You need to work out how you are trying to affect the other person with what you are saying.
One way of doing this is called "actioning" your text. Break your script up into chunks: every time you have a new change of thought, you need to find a transitive verb, a verb that is active, such as to beg, to entice, to charm, to get sympathy (a good thesaurus is very handy here). Remember that this technique is not about the emotional content of what you are saying or feeling but about what you want the other person to feel psychologically. By playing these chosen activities you are trying to make the actor that you are playing opposite feel something specific in order to further your action.
So, you have to think: how can I affect the other character by doing what? At this stage you should know who your character is, and your choice of active verbs should be informed by your character choice and not your personal choice. If my character was a loving, open, sweet, sensitive young girl and my dialogue was: "I don't love you anymore, I think you should go", my verb will be determined by my above characteristics and not by the actual line itself. Therefore verbs such as to plead, to get sympathy, to reason, should be chosen, as opposed to verbs that might reflect another type of character, such as to demand, to threaten, to hurt. If in the rehearsal a choice doesn't work then you can change your choice. Nothing should be initially set in stone.
I like to call this process "scoring" your text. Just as a musician or singer would rely on their score to know how to sing or play their song, an actor works out how to play the monologue, scene or play. Once you've done it, you have to play it fully, otherwise it's pretty pointless. The challenge is the execution of it. It's time-consuming initially to find the right verbs, but once you have them and tested them in rehearsal, not only will you have given your performance light and shade but also depth. It also means you do not have to fall into a dreadful cliche performance by thinking of how to say the lines and what you should be feeling and emoting. This technique allows you to be free and truthful without playing external emotion. It's really about what you don't say and trusting that actions will speak louder than words.
10. What must I overcome?
Every actor should always have an inner and an outer obstacle. The outer obstacle is the resistance (usually the other character) to obtaining your action. The inner obstacle is your inner conflict, which you must always plant in a scene even though it can change. There must always be a problem you are trying to overcome. If you think of yourself in life, you're never without an inner obstacle. You'll have seen scenes on stage or screen where the inner obstacle has not been properly planted: you get a load of actors just shouting, over-emoting and sometimes just playing the aggression. If the inner obstacle is there, the anger, fear or hate, for example, then you've got something to fight against in the scene. Much more interesting.
Actors may believe that they can do without formal training. But I have worked with untrained actors, who have landed a film or a TV series on the basis of their looks, and seen them struggle to be able to reproduce what they were able to do in the first take. Natural ability will get you so far, but it's the trained actors who know what they're doing and how they're doing it and can produce that emotion take after take.
To fully transform into a character, to be truthfully and emotionally connected needs hard work, technique, good direction. But the audience should see none of this. They should see nothing other than the fully realised three-dimensional character right in the truth of the moment.
• Dee Cannon teaches acting at RADA
What makes an actor truly great?
Great acting, like great writing, is often in the eye of the beholder, but audiences almost always know when they are in the presence of something special. Talent may be enough to get by on screen and TV, but with a few notable exceptions such as Kelly Reilly, the untrained actor often fares badly on stage. The performances that most often thrill us are those where instinct and technique are both in perfect balance but also opposition, and flamboyance and inner life collide head on, transforming feeling into thought and words. When this mixture of abandon and control ignites, what happens is as mysterious as alchemy; the theatre crackles; it leaves the spectator reeling. It makes you believe Eric Bentley's thesis that "the purpose of theatre is to produce great performances."
Many actors have tricks to help them along the way. Laurence Olivier liked his putty to mould a nose, or a costume department hump as much as the next actor. But it wasn't these external props that made him a great actor; it was something that he mined from deep inside himself, something that perhaps the poetic might call soul. You can teach people timing, you can teach them how to stand; you can give them the infrastructure that allows them to take risks, but you can't teach them to be in touch with their own spirit. All great actors are, and it is what makes them distinctive. Fiona Shaw, Clare Higgins, Michael Gambon, Judi Dench: it's as if there is something coiled but restless inside them struggling to get out. When it does, the stage ignites.
• Lyn Gardner, Guardian theatre critic