November 2, 2011

Play inspired by the Parthenon Marbles

Posted at 1:57 pm in Elgin Marbles

Janet Munsil’s play about the Elgin Marbles is showing again in Canada.

Times Colonist (Canada)

Theatre Review: Stolen Greek sculptures inspire play
By Adrian Chamberlain, Times Colonist March 6, 2011
What: Influence
Where: Metro Studio
When: To March 13
Rating: 3 1/2

No wonder Athena seems choked.

The citizens of Athens built the Parthenon in the goddess’s honour. So when Lord Elgin pilfered the sculptures from the Parthenon in the early 19th century, she took it as a personal affront.

An enraged Athena storms the stage in Influence, a 2008 play by Victoria’s Janet Munsil, now undergoing its second production. Set in the British Museum in 1817, where the marbles are newly installed, she is joined by fellow Greek gods Apollo and Hephaestus. The mortals are the poet John Keats and the English painter Benjamin Haydon, a lesser-known figure.

What follows is, essentially, a examination of the nature of artistic creation. Influence is intellectually ambitious theatre, not for the faint hearted. This drama with comic elements is powered not by plot, but by ideas. The play -directed by Munsil and boasting a good local cast -is dense and talky. And it assumes, perhaps too much, that audiences will already know something about Keats and Greek mythology.

There’s something compelling about the play’s uncompromising nature. Keats and Haydon pursue their art with a ferocity and earnestness that is pure and admirable; for them, it is literally a life or death battle. Munsil, a gifted playwright, writes with admirable intelligence and depth.

Keats (Elliot Loran) is an emerging poet who has just quit his medical studies to pursue his art. His mentor is Haydon, taking Keats to see the Elgin marbles for the first time. Played by Paul Terry, the blustering painter is bristling mass of contradictions: intelligent, arrogant, conceited, kind in his way. The penniless Haydon, always trying to bum money from the penniless Keats, is -to put it plainly -a royal pain in the rump. However, the two men forge a brotherhood in their passion their art.

Apollo (David Radford), the god of art and medicine, has decided to champion Keats. Athena (Karen Lee) is contemptuous of the young poet. Ultimately, the gods offer Keats the sort of immortality any artist yearns for. But for the poet, it comes at a terrible cost.

Munsil aims to show us how, for 19th-century artists such as Keats and Haydon, the creation of art was all-consuming, even to the point of selfimmolation. For them, art was not a sideline or something one tried to balance wholesomely with other facets of one’s life. It was the be-all and endall; a divine mission. Such a notion, so out of fashion today, is fascinating … and, of course, awfully romantic.

In Influence, the gods battle intellectually and physically -Athena, rather comically, often “smites” Apollo with invisible blows. In dramatic terms, the notion of the Elgin theft offending Athena is an intriguing one. Yet overall, the discourse among the three gods seems overly academic. It is densely written, sometimes rather impenetrable.

The function of Hephaestus, played by Ian Case, is puzzling. On Friday night, I was confused as to what the character was talking about most of the time. (Perhaps this reflects my own lack, insufficient time spent studying the Greek classics.)

The main challenge in bringing Influence to life is a lack of conventional plot. We’re not taken along on a traditional adventure, with one event inevitably triggering another and so forth. It’s a conceptual piece; it seems divorced from the rag and bone shop of the real world.

Munsil uses humour to help connect with the audience. There are many sly and witty exchanges in Influence. On Friday night, these seemed blunted, perhaps because the dialogue was quickly delivered. The humour in Influence was, at least to me, more apparent reading the script than seeing it played.

Influence is a play of substance. The ideas linger with the thoughtful playgoer. Take the time to ponder them; the rewards are there.

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