Penelope’s Web: Christopher Rush

★★★

I was drawn towards this book in the library by a kind of magnetic field, as usually happens with books about Troy. I’d never heard of Christopher Rush before, but I was tempted by the sound of a novel that retold the story of the Odyssey and Iliad from different perspectives, focusing on the way that stories ennoble and refine the hard, unpalatable facts of real life. The concept is intelligent, but the language is occasionally unremittingly filthy and the attitude to women is (perhaps unsurprisingly for soldiers in Bronze Age Greece) dismally misogynistic. While I don’t for a minute suggest that the author shares the views of his characters, I found it very hard to warm to a book in which women are seen as having only one function.

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House of Names: Colm Tóibín

★★★

I had high expectations for Colm Tóibín’s new novel. His Testament of Mary was so powerful, so raw in its evocation of a mother’s grief, that I thought his treatment of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon would be equally striking. And the opening line seemed to bear that promise out: ‘I have been acquainted,’ muses Clytemnestra, with the smell of death’. Unfortunately, however, the book has a strangely detached quality, as if all the emotion of this shocking story has been cauterised out of the characters.

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Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria: Claudio Monteverdi (1640)

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 15 October 2016)

Most operas are about infatuation: the sudden, all-consuming flare of love that causes kingdoms to fall, mountains to crumble and worlds to change – the love of Paris for Helen, for example. We don’t hear quite so often about the quieter, more enduring kind of love that ‘withstands tempests and is never shaken’. Yet here, in his second surviving opera, Monteverdi does just that. His heroes, Ulysses and Penelope, aren’t tumultuous young things: on the contrary, they’re two people of a certain age, trying to make the best of a bad job. It doesn’t sound terribly dramatic, does it? And it isn’t, if by drama you mean fire and the clash of steel. But it’s one of the most moving stories I’ve seen in opera so far, because it takes the power out of the hands of kings and emperors, and lays bare the workings of the human heart.

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Bacchae: Euripides

Bacchae: Euripides

★★★★

(Actors of Dionysus at Osterley Park, 29 July 2016)

In November 2000, when I was fifteen years old, my parents took me to see my first Greek tragedy. It was Bacchae, performed in the QEH theatre in Bristol by the touring company the Actors of Dionysus. I was utterly captivated: by the story; by the simplicity; by Tamsin Shasha’s sexy, dangerous Dionysus; and by the translation. Ever since I’ve been hunting down a translation which begins with that same commanding cry: ‘Thebes! Thebes! First city of Greece! I have come back…‘ So when I heard that, sixteen years later, the company were performing Bacchae again, in an open-air production in the grounds of the National Trust’s Osterley Park, I absolutely had to go.

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The Just City: Jo Walton

★★★★

Thessaly: Book I

In his book The Republic, Plato dreamed of a just society in which the pursuit of knowledge and excellence would be the highest goal. It was a daring dream, the first utopia: an elaborate thought-experiment which has captivated the imagination of thinkers through the ages. But could it actually work? Athena is determined to find out. Gathering together those who, throughout history, have read Republic and prayed to her that it might be possible to live in such a place, she prepares the groundwork for the realisation of the greatest political fantasy ever imagined.

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The Double Tongue: William Golding

★★★

When William Golding died in 1993, he was in the middle of working on a new novel, which was left unfinished. At an advanced draft stage, it told the story of a young woman plucked from her miserable family life and offered the chance of a new existence at the ritual site of Delphi, where she becomes a servant of the god Apollo and, later, the mouthpiece for his words. The story was in good shape and so Golding’s editors and executors decided to publish it – and it became The Double Tongue. That title is apparently only one of those which Golding had tried out on the top of the manuscript, but it’s a very fitting name for a book which is all about the duplicity and sleight-of-hand that accompany the act of prophecy.

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The Long War: Christian Cameron

This really is going back a bit. I came across these books in January, which proved to be an odd month for reading: I had plenty of time for it, but little mental capacity. I was either waiting around at airports, wiling away transatlantic flights with a flimsy attention span, or wilting after intellectually intense days of training. In short, I needed good, solid entertainment and by chance I unearthed a series that was just the ticket: Christian Cameron’s Long War books.


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The Oresteia: Aeschylus

The Oresteia

★★★★

(The Globe, London, 6 September 2015)

Seeing this the day after Hamlet, I definitely feel that I’ve met my Great Tragedy Quota for this month. Written in 458 BC, when Aeschylus was in his late sixties, this feels like the Dane’s ancient counterpart: if Hamlet is the great modern exploration of the self, then the Oresteia is a monument not just to human nature, but to civilisation itself. Continue reading

Bacchae: Euripides

Euripides: Bacchae

★★★½

(The UCL Classical Play; directed by Emily Louizou, at the British Museum, 20 July 2015)

Bacchae was the first classical play that I saw, way back in 2000, and it’s still my favourite. When I heard that UCL Classics students were performing the play on Thursday night at a British Museum Members’ Evening (sold out), and there was a free dress rehearsal on the Monday, I jumped at the chance to attend. Performed in an English translation by James Morwood, this was a promenade performance, unfolding amid the columns, steps and statues of the Museum’s Great Court.

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Defining Beauty: The Greek Body

Defining Beauty: Discobolos

(British Museum, London, until 5 July 2015)

I’ve been terribly lax at writing about exhibitions recently, and this post is actually far too late because the show has just closed. Nevertheless there were such beautiful things on display that I still wanted to write a little about it; and I hope some of you had the chance to see it. The theme was, very simply, the body in Greek art; but it went beyond the predictable athletic male nude, which for the Greeks, and for so many cultures since, has been the pinnacle of physical perfection. The show also looked at sculptures of the female body, whether divine or mortal; at representations of the body throughout the life cycle; and at sculpture on different scales and in different modes, from heroic to comic.

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