The Battle of the Eras

George Breare – President of Durham University Classical Theatre

A brief glance at Durham Student Theatre’s 2016 listings, with the possible exception of Shakespeare, finds largely a drive towards the innovative and the experimental that often comes with modern drama. There is almost a responsibility therefore for Durham University Classical Theatre (DUCT) to take up the historical baton in its choice of plays. DUCT owes its existence to the former President Leo Mylonadis’ passion for Greek tragedy; however, whilst its scope remains extremely broad limiting itself to plays written over 100 years ago or concerning an epoch in the same timeframe, its focus is moving more towards the canonical works of literature.   

It seems obvious to say that when considering DUCT’s future productions, historical context is a crucial factor. Doing a classical play allows a director to view the play from a fully holistic perspective. It is not merely about capturing the spirit of the text, but also capturing the zeitgeist of the era in question. Drama is fundamentally about critiquing and exploring our own reality. For me, it is immensely rewarding and artistically interesting to also unpick the conditions of a different period, and classical plays allow one to do so. It is a drama that is also arguably more immersive than modern theatre. One finds you can cast off 21st Century attitudes and surrender yourself entirely to a different way of thinking; a separate world entirely – it is drama at its most powerful, immersive best.       

Having said this, innovation and classical theatre are not poles apart; indeed DUCT also recognises the value in exploring classical drama through a modern perspective or with modern values in mind.  Our recent production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, for example, sought to portray the full escapist joy of a period drama whilst also exploring the powerful progressive feminist message behind it. Looking forward, modern reimaginings of classical tales is something we are looking to explore.

Whilst ‘classical’ theatre may at first glance seem a restrictive parameter; the immense artistic, innovative, and historical potential of classical drama is not only liberating but also ripe for exploration.

Alex Prescot – President of Battered Soul Theatre 

This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked why Battered Soul focuses on modern theatre. For me, it’s not at all about disliking older theatre (Shakespeare’s got a nice way with words, I guess), it’s much more that 21st Century theatre continues to be underdone in comparison to its more established cousins. In a way, this amazes me; there is so much good theatre around at the moment, and a lot of plays have successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, or even in the West End, and then sit around until someone chooses to revive it, if they ever do). It’s a more risky business model I guess – amateur rights for plays written in the 21st Century usually cost between £70 and £90 a night, so you have to think harder about the economic side of your projects in order to remain viable. That said, there is a fair bit of funding knocking about DST, so if you brush up on your grant application skills, you should be fine.

In this vein, our company chose ‘Cock’ by Mike Bartlett for our first production because the play has a very specific remit – it uses no props and no set, so we knew that we could keep production costs low. It’s not unique in this approach – a lot of modern theatre is very sparse in its stage direction, allowing you to produce it very minimally. For directors, this provides an opportunity to be inventive with both the staging and the venue choice with such ventures. Durham Drama Festival provided a mere glimpse of the opportunities for site specific theatre around Durham, and sufficient planning would open up far more spaces for those theatre companies wanting to programme theatre into the next academic year.

So next time you read a great modern monologue, why not think about putting on the whole play?

Photograph: Giulia Delprato, ( and Theodore Holt-Bailey in Battered Soul’s production of ‘Cock’ at NSDF) 

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