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Michael Hurst is a New Zealand actor, director and playwright. Many classicists perhaps know him best as Iolaus from the television series Hercules, The Legendary Journeys (1995-99) and its sequel Xena Warrior Princess (1995-2001). But, Michael’s love of the classics is actually one of the cornerstones of his career. Not only has he studied the classics extensively, he has been inspired to adapt and direct a number of ancient Greek plays for the New Zealand stage.
AB: Can you tell us about your first encounter with the literature and culture of ancient Greece? In particular, what attracted you, as an actor and director, to the Greek classics?
MH: When I began my career as an actor at eighteen, I had no real idea what Greek Drama was. I think I had vaguely heard of Oedipus, but even then, only that he put out his own eyes at the end of the play, which seemed to fit with my general vision of the ancient world derived mainly from sword-and-sandal movies. It wasn’t long, though, before the need to familiarise myself with the Greeks became apparent. It seemed that everything stemmed from them. So I stumbled around the edges, reading an old prose version of The Iliad (dull) and some ‘history of theatre’ books, which offered concise summations of the origins and impact of Greek Drama, but they only served to make it more mysterious. My questions were about how it all worked, looked, felt and sounded. How could we translate it into a modern audio and visual experience? Was there music? How did the performers move?
In 1980 I saw a production of Seneca’s Phaedra, directed by Raymond Hawthorne with Theatre Corporate. It was staged in St. Marys Cathedral, a huge, wooden building with a vaulted ceiling. It was dazzling. The chorus was a revelation to me – the chanting, the choreography of their movement, the flow that they facilitated between the central characters and the audience – I was overwhelmed by the power of it all. The size of it; and that got me thinking…
AB: You have acted in and directed several ancient Greek plays in New Zealand. Can you tell what drew you to these ancient dramas?
MH: From 1980 to 1985 I spent a great deal of time working with Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth, Hamlet, As You Like It, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, The Merchant of Venice, as well as with those of Bertolt Brecht – The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage, The Good Person of Schezuan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. These works all served as pathways to the Greeks, and, in 1985, when Theatre Corporate was dissolved as a company, we decided to stage Euripides’ The Trojan Women in the open, both as a farewell and to look forward to the future and the blossoming of drama we hoped it would bring.
Having no real idea of how to go about this, we decided that the chorus should always sing or chant, that they should move as one, and that we would allow the words in the great speeches to soar. The translation was by John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was particularly accessible. The effect was fantastic. People wept. The voices soared into the sky. The drums and the cymbals were brazen. Auguries occurred in the sky. It was like Phaedra in the cathedral writ larger.
AB: You have also worked with younger students and helped them bring ancient dramas to the stage. What creative solutions did you adopt within this theatrical context?
MH: In 1987 there came an opportunity for more Greeks. I was working with a group of students, 14 – 17 year olds. We were to present something as the result of our classes together, so I decided that we would do Euripides’ The Bacchae. I had read a version by Wole Soyinka, which I enjoyed, and then, to prepare for this production, I read as many versions as I could get my hands on and decided to put together all of the bits that I liked best. I made the whole cast into a chorus, and had them ‘choose’ who would take on which role in the ritual of the play. The cast were all young women, so this was quite a powerful theatrical device. We had one young man in the class, a late arrival and a bit of a loner, but he could play and loved the electric guitar, so I told him he was the accompaniment to the drama. He sat in a corner in the dark next to his giant speaker and made what seemed to be every conceivable sound come out of it.
Again, the ritual, the unity of the cast, the extremes of sound, the choreographed movement, all combined to powerful effect, but with this play came so many questions: Why? What? What is going on here? At the time I was also appearing as Rolf in The Sound of Music. The contrast between ‘You are sixteen, going on seventeen’ and the moment when Agave recognises her own son’s head in her hands couldn’t be more stark. I wanted to know what this was all about.
AB: You created your own version of one of the most famous stories in Greek tragedy. Your House of Atreus (1990) draws on several ancient plays, namely Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Euripides’ Electra and Orestes and Seneca’s Thyestes. What attracted you to this ancient story of murder and revenge and why did you choose these plays in particular?
MH: I went to Greece in 1989 for three months. I took The Iliad and The Odyssey. I saw some plays. But I also started to understand that the great myth cycles such as the story of the House of Atreus or of Oedipus acted as the signal strands in Greek drama. I could see that the entire social fabric of myth, religion and philosophy as it coalesced in classical Athens was woven into the plays, and I wanted to know more about that. I was so excited by how these great epics (the Trojan War!) could be used, like Shakespeare’s mirror, to reveal both scorn and virtue, and to reflect on the form and pressures of the time. Further, to reflect in a sense on our age, our time.
So I came back from Greece and created a show called The House of Atreus. This involved the reconfiguration of a group of plays into a three act structure that told the story of that doomed family beginning with Thyestes and Atreus taking us through to the final moments of Orestes. The first part was comprised almost entirely of Seneca’s Thyestes. This was mainly because it was the only material I could find re-telling the story of that grisly banquet. But also it is bloody, violent and has the Furies in it. This suited the actors in the first part of the trilogy. This first part was the story of the beginning (excuding the story of Pelops), and I had it performed by thirty teenagers. It was wild, energetic and intense; full of movement and multi-layered sound.
The second part, the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, comprised of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and my cast was twenty to forty-five year olds. There were forty people in this act, and we made them look homogenous, like the Greeks perhaps, with black hair and wearing blue and white classical garments. In the middle of this part of the trilogy, I staged the Trojan War, using our entire cast (about 100 people) and two giant wind machines (powered by VW engines). Iphigenia was sacrificed prior to this grand spectacle, and Agamemnon returned to his doom once the chaos had calmed down.
Part three was the story of Electra, Orestes and Pylades. I used Euripides, Sophocles and some Aeschylus here, and populated this act with senior citizens, as if the energy of the Greek people had been spent on war. It seemed a fair comment to me in light of the Peloponnesian War. A tired Electra, a spent Orestes attempting a pointless revenge and a lovely wrap up from Apollo. In the finale, I had the entire cast, aged from 13 to 91, hoist the five year old Apollo above their heads and parade around our theatrical space, chanting. I felt that this was a moment spanning millennia. That was in 1990, and since then I have attempted to present Greek drama whenever I can…
AB: Given your extensive experience what would you say are some of the main challenges of staging ancient Greek plays in New Zealand?
MH: The biggest challenge to doing this comes from the persistent idea that Greek tragedies are miserable and that Greek comedies aren’t funny, except possibly Lysistrata because of its premise. Agreed, the tragedies are in fact tragic, but this should be no more a disqualification for them than for any modern tragedy; their suffering is accessible and relevant, and where the relevance needs to be funneled through adaptation, then so be it. So convincing companies to present the Greeks is difficult, and so is convincing the public that what they will see will be riveting and transforming. In my experience, once they get into the theatre, they love it.
AB: Talking about ancient comedy, you directed Aristophanes’ great comedy the Lysistrata on a number of occasions, most recently for the Auckland Theatre Company in 2015. Do you think that this play, first performed in 411 BCE, can still speak to modern audiences?
MH: The Auckland Theatre Company production of the Lysistrata was a great success. The show extended its season, played to full houses and garnered excellent reviews. Why? What made it relevant? Why did people laugh? Did they recognise themselves? While preparing for the show, I read many versions and I tried to understand how Aristophanes spoke to his contemporaries, which was loudly, boldly, directly and with a direct connection to his audience. As in Shakespearean comedy, there is a direct reference to the people actually in the room (or the space), which, when put in the perspective of having been performed for hundreds (thousands) of years, makes it seem that those people from these early audiences are just around the corner. The reality and recognisability of the types presented in Myrrhine, Gorgo and Kalonike reaches effortlessly across the centuries, and their interaction with the audience, Lysistrata’s interaction with the audience, are as alive now as they were then, if we let them be so.
I added some material from the lyric poets Archilochus and Sappho to my text of Lysistrata in order to foreground some of the attitudes to sex and love that were prevalent in classical Athens. This also helped me to bridge the span of time separating us from the Greeks and served as a reminder to modern audiences that ancient concerns with the nature of eros continue to be relevant. I chose to set the production in 1972, this being the last time that I think any man would have thought he could get away with saying things like ‘I refuse to take orders from someone wearing a dress!’. Lysistrata is not a feminist play. It can’t be, since it was written by a man in a society where women were not even citizens. It is easy to think that Aristophanes is sticking up for women in this play, but his caricatures of them are actually quite withering, and Lysistrata herself behaves more as a contemporary Greek man would have done rather than a woman. So setting my production in a still sexist milieu, but one not too distant as to be alienating, brought everything into relief.
AB: Aristophanes is famous, or perhaps infamous is a better word, for his ‘bad language’. Many of the older translations cut out all the ‘dirty jokes’ turning it into a staid, one might even say boring, play. What is your own stance on this?
MH: I kept the dirty jokes. The liberation of language in the theatre is a modern phenomenon with, clearly, ancient precedents. Women seeing that ancient women misbehaved in the same way and had many of the the same concerns as women now, was one of my intentions, and the content of this play delivers this in abundance. And this works for men, too, of course. The battle of the sexes presented with humour and deep understanding, as something that has been with us for thousands of years, is I think both moving and uplifting for modern audiences.
AB: You mentioned that you used some of the poetry of Archilochus and Sappho in your Lysistrata. What led you to create this exciting combination?
MH: I discovered Guy Davenport’s translations of Archilochus, Sappho and Alcman in 1989. I was absolutely bowled over by these fragments. I loved the sense of being spoken to directly by those minds from over two and a half thousand years ago. I began to read more and more about those lyric poets, then the Homeric Hymns, then Hesiod. In the 1990s I was able to expand my studies and I took several classics courses through Massey University, like Greek and Roman Religion and Love and Sexuality in Ancient Greece, both of which helped me enormously in approaching Greek plays.
AB: Let us now turn to the question of the reception of the classics in popular culture. Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt have made a comeback (if they ever truly went away) in cinema, television, and other mass media. You were part of that renaissance in the 1990s playing Iolaus in Hercules’ Legendary Journeys (1995-99), filmed here in New Zealand. Can you comment on the show’s success and why, in your opinion, people continue to be fascinated by classical mythology?
MH: I was cast as Iolaus in this US television series in 1993. Hercules, The Legendary Journeys proved very successful as a ‘free adaptation’ of the Herakles myths. The initial impetus for the series, according to one of the producers, was to move away from the white marble, clean chiton, sandal-wearing image of the ancient Greeks that had up to that time dominated the entertainment industry. The creators of the show were keen to have lots of colour, comedy and a rich landscape of verdant forests and green pastures – hence, we shot it all in New Zealand, almost exclusively in or near the west coast beaches of Piha and Karekare. This proved to be a good move, and drew in a new audience who, even though the writers made free with the material, became fascinated by the Greek myths and many of whom (as evidenced by the numerous letters and communications I have received over the years) went on to further study the classics in one way or another; a really good thing.
For me, the ‘new’ popularity of these ancient cultures (Greece, Egypt, and Rome) runs parallel to the resurgence of science fiction as a valid entertainment option. After all, what were the creatures in myth if not the ancients’ version of our monsters from outer space? Remember, Star Wars owes much of its power to the research done by George Lucas into the nature of myth as posited by Joseph Campbell, namely deeply rooted in the human psyche.
We have a desire for heroes as well as a need to see real human conflicts portrayed against an exotic background of gods and monsters. We see ourselves in the kings, queens, priests, priestesses, villains and heroes of these myths, these tales of great figures stalking the past. These characters are elevated to the point that we look to them as exemplars of how we are, but not to such a degree that we cannot relate to them. In a manner not dissimilar to the way in which the works of Shakespeare still speak to us, so do the works of the Greeks.
When we were filming Hercules, we spent a great deal of time making sure that the virtues of the hero (Hercules himself) were highlighted, as was the fallibility of his honest, well-intentioned but mortal side-kick Iolaus. We were constantly pitted against evil, mainly avaricious enemies, and thrown into situations where the ‘correct’ outcome involved some kind of moral rectitude. Again, this theme runs through both the ‘sword and sandal’ and science fiction genres; nothing new under the sun…
The new wave of popular sword and sandal epics went hand in hand with huge technological developments in special effects. For example, compare the latest movie versions of Hercules or the 300 with the films of the 1950s populated by creatures created in stop motion by Ray Harryhausen. We want to be amazed by the special effects (think of the gods from the machine) while at the same time we want to see our moral standpoints reinforced by example.
AB: More recently, a very different view of the ancient world is being portrayed on television, as a place of violence, sex, and corrupt politics. I am thinking in particular of HBO’s Rome (2005-7) and the Starz version of the story of Spartacus’s rebellion (2010-13), which was also filmed here in New Zealand and I understand you directed several episodes. Why do you think this R-rated version of antiquity has risen to prominence in recent times?
MH: Yes, recently, we have seen a much more sexualised and violent approach to the material, as in the Spartacus series, or Rome. But is this more violent than, say, Shakespeare’s ultra-violent Titus Andronicus, or the pictures conjured by the messenger of the death of Pentheus in The Bacchae? It seems to me that the same effect is achieved, but tailored to different audiences - material for many essays here.
Find more information at Michael Hurst's website.
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Last updated on Tuesday 21 February 2017