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“Far the best holiday we’ve had for years”: Virginia Woolf with Roger Fry by the Temple of Poseidon, Cape Soúnion, Greece, in 1932 (photo: MS THR 560 (57), courtesy of Harvard University)

When I do the rounds of this year’s Greek plays, I’ll be taking Virginia Woolf as a guide. We’ll sit tensely in the stalls to “bruise our minds upon” Aeschylus’s Oresteia at the Almeida and the Globe, smile at Sophocles “gliding like a shoal of trout” in the Barbican’s Antigone, and tiptoe into “the world of psychology and doubt” in Euripides’s Bacchae and Medea, also at the Almeida.

And why not? They may not be as celebrated as Mrs Dalloway or Orlando or any other of her dazzling novels, but Woolf’s notes on Greek theatre are not a bit less penetrating.

She liked the sneering manner of it, the choruses which “sing like birds in the pauses of the wind” but stand aloof from us on some middle ground between then and now, teasing, baffling, sublime. She liked the way the tragedians conveyed their characters’ suffering despite the constraints of theatre: “every sentence had to explode on striking the ear.” But it was the feeling that she had never quite grasped what they were trying to say that kept them in her thoughts.

She even blamed the weather for the English inability to understand them. Our climate, she supposed, simply isn’t conducive to imagining the outdoor society of the classical plays and playwrights. A trip to Greece in 1906 — the first of two in her lifetime — gave her occasion to observe something of their “out-of-doors manner”. Greece had suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Ottomans in 1897, but when she heard a group of noisy Corinthians outside her window she suspected that its people were prone to squeal through joy as often as through sadness:

A band of wailing women are singing beneath my window. Do they lament the nations [sic] fall, or some private woe, or are they merely celebrating the new restaurant which opened with fireworks this evening?

How could this tragic chorus possibly appeal to “the brooding introspective melancholy of people accustomed to live more than half the year indoors”? After all, the audience who watched Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy in the 5th century BC sat in an open-air theatre. Those who watched it in the early 20th century were almost always under full cover as the curtain went up to reveal the forecourt to the palace of Agamemnon, King of Argos. In the opening scene of Agamemnon, the first play, the king’s watchman perches on the palace rooftop, gazing at the stars.

Will Adele Thomas have the upper hand when she stages Rory Mullarkey’s adaption of the Oresteia triology in the open air of the Globe this summer? Or will Robert Icke circumnavigate this gulf between interior and exterior through his modern take on the myths at the Almeida?

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