The weather is beautifully sunny as I sit in the Warden’s Garden in New College chatting to David Raeburn. This is a man who has just turned 90 years old and has a serious passion for Greek plays: in our conversation I learn more about the man himself and his next production, an outdoor performance of Ajax.
Firstly, David, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I used to be a school master and, after retiring in 1991, I came back to Oxford to teach on the elementary Greek course run by the Classics faculty; I’ve been working for New College teaching Classics since 1998. Play directing has been my main hobby in life and I’ve done lots of productions, particularly Greek plays. My first one was 70 years ago almost to the day; in 1947 I was an undergraduate and I directed Aeschylus’ Agamemnon in Christ Church – that was the beginning of it all. I’ve probably put on at least 30 productions of Greek plays. In New College, I’ve been putting on Greek plays since 2007, this is the 8th production and the first time here in the Warden’s Garden.
And could you give me an introduction to Ajax?
Ajax is a rather curious play. It is about Ajax, a Greek warrior, who feels slighted because he has not been awarded with Achilles’ arms; he feels as if he ought to be given this honour as a tribute to his valour, but instead they have been awarded to Odysseus. Ajax then goes out to kill his enemies but he’s thwarted; the goddess Athena places a delusional madness on him and he kills a lot of sheep and cattle in the belief that they are his intended victims. We see him at the beginning of the play, still infected by this madness, but the story develops quickly. He comes to himself again, realises what he has done and is now determined to kill himself because he feels so humiliated; if he can’t live in honour, he must die in honour. Ajax is a big, demonic personality and he was very important to the ancient Athenians. They had a cult for him and he was worshipped as a hero, he’s a half-god. There’s something special about Ajax, although he’s incredibly arrogant and self-centred; I don’t think the Greeks necessarily wanted their heroes to be nice, they wanted them to be special. There’s a lot of emotion in the play; we see Tecmessa who is Ajax’s partner and who loves him. There’s a marvellous relationship between Tecmessa and Ajax, it is a very moving aspect of the play, and she begs him not to kill himself. It looks at one point as if Ajax has changed his mind but in fact it’s a bluff: he wants to be free to go and kill himself without being interrupted and he does that. The rest of the play is concerned with the discovery of Ajax’s body by Tecmessa and then a discussion takes place about the burial of the body, and whether Ajax should be properly buried with honours.
What was your approach in staging the play?
I think the play has to be looked at through Athenian eyes to be understood. We’re doing it in modern clothes, but it’s not so much to make it relevant to today but to use the modern references to illuminate the ancient play. The ancient play comes first for me and I don’t want to distort what the Ancient Greeks meant in order to drag it into the 21st century. One of the interesting things, which I’m keen on bringing out, is the way it’s composed, you have solo actors and a chorus, and that is the Greek tragic recipe. A lot of modern directors say the chorus is a bore or a problem but I see the chorus as an opportunity. I’m doing the play in English but what I’ve done is replicate the rhythms of the original Greek, because the chorus’ are written in interesting patterns and rhythms which I think have got an emotive value which is still valid. It’s a bit like someone translating an opera from French to English, they’ve got to fit the words to the notes and the music. I tried to do that and I’m keen on getting the form right, I think the form and meaning are very closely interrelated and you can get along way by embracing the form – don’t apologise for it.
Why did you choose to put Ajax on at this particular time?
Well, it lends itself to a fairly intimidate setting, and I think the play will work well in this setting (the Warden’s garden) – the intensity of emotion will come across. I should also say that there are seven plays of Sophocles which have survived and they’re world class stuff. This is the seventh I’ve directed after directing all the others, I was quite keen to do that and it seemed right for the people we’ve got; we’ve cast it quite excitingly.
What are the challenges for the actors in this play?
It’s very stylised and it’s written in verse; it has to be clearly delivered. It’s different to modern plays because in a modern play the character psychology is very important but here there is so much just implicit in the language and the words. It calls for a gutsy, strong, uninhibited kind of delivery – that’s the main challenge. The actors have to let go and I think ours have but they need an audience now.
How is a contemporary staging of the play different to an ancient one?
The fundamental difference is the audience: the Ancient Greek audience came to the theatre with very different assumptions about what the theatre was, they came to see a play which was composed to be performed just once. Plays now are marketed commercially with repeat performances: the audience comes with a completely different view point. Also, the Ancient Greeks used masks whereas we have more of an idea of typecasting, the actors should be right and the personalities of their characters should come out more in their facial expressions and so on. I have to say that this is not an academic reconstruction of a Greek play. As a director you have this ancient text and you need to bring alive something which was composed for a very different society. You have to make it real as a work of drama because it is a work of drama. Greek plays are interesting pieces intellectually but you have to bring the thing alive so an audience can respond to this ancient text – so they see it as not just as something weird and alien but as something exciting, dramatic and moving
Ajax will be perfomed in The Warden’s Garden in New Collge from the 31st of May to the 3rd of June. Tickets are on sale now: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdijmePNOdZcRxYYp2rBK3XzCnMsRz0xKrKVP2uf0gUeMrCBA/viewform?c=0&w=1