Fringe Online 2021
Pandora’s Jar/Honour Among Thebes
Jermyn Street Theatre
Written and performed by Natalie Haynes. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till June 19th.
Forget football if you’re here or watching. Natalie Haynes kicks everything including Gods and Hessiod into touch as she tackles two of those themes familiar from her BBC TV or Radio 4 series Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics, the latest series of which ended ten days ago. Her we’re nominally presented two halves – Pandora’s Jar and Honour Among Thebes. Haynes being Haynes though we get an addition. Just to annoy those who warm to Haynes’ footballing metaphors, she’s gone into penalty time, even shoot-outs. Will she make it?
Mixing classical scholarship with stand-up talent, Haynes remains the finest popular exemplar of Greek culture, much as Mary Beard has expounded Rome. Both are superb scholars, let’s be clear, and just annoy the s-t out of sober tweeds.
But we get a game of two halves anyway. Pandora, Medea and we’ll get to Honour among Thebes (Jocasta) halfway through this 75-minute show. What’s clear is that Haynes brilliant free-wheeling ad-libbing in front of an audience adds a wild dimension to her delight and wit. It’s more exhilarating than even the ‘live’ Radio 4 shows.
First we get the decay of learning, the way sources and egos corrupt origins also usually through the refractions of misogyny. First, the sudden fits of Hessiod, jealous of his brother an misogynistic – Haynes suggests how wife ran off with brother, quite likely as brothers and women get short shrift. Even he’s charmed by Pandora, the first woman sculpted from clay by Hepehestus, delivered by Hermes and whom linguistically has been termed a good/bad thing, but the good being visual, beautiful, sexy and the bad being evil, moral in fact. And even Hessiod doesn’t mention the box. Well that’s 2,000 years on. So that jar. Let alone box.
We get a bonus before the interval: Medea, who’s again refracted in a very different way. Certainly dangerous, certainly wronged Haynes shows her refusal to be reductive towards male sources, praising Euripides’ portrayal of a very 5th century BCE as opposed to 12-13th BCE woman who it seems might have had more agency. What Euripides is describing, refrained by a male actor for almost certainly exclusive male audience is a disquisition on female experience, that women are as heroic bearing children and dying as any man in battle – which she’d prefer to child-bearing. Something many of the elements of Medea actually aiding Jason are repeated, and we’re into the interval, minding singing kilts and football fans drifting across the street above.
Is there just a coincidence that Haynes’ black sweat-shirt is emblazoned in white: ‘Nasty Woman’? Ah.
The second half concerns Oedipus Rex (idiot dinosaur title, quips Haynes, since it’s anachronistic too) so we’re treated to a brief history of Greek drama, starting essentially with Aeschylus.
His first play Persians 472 BCE is an act of revolutionary empathy (imagining the pain of the opposing nation) is the astonishing opening of drama. As if brides of al Qaida were the only thing to survive of us, making the Mail implodes (a bonus). There’s sortition, leaser for a day, an improvement Haynes avers suggesting the giraffes in the zoo seems smart. Her coruscating asides always feed back and are always funny, often illuminating. Taxes swapping properties on the person you’re snitching on, and other barbarisms like Jeff Bezos paying taxes, spending as much on drama as defence, Haynes’ infectious reframing of civic responsibility.
We’re treated to a brief overview of Aristotle’s famous unity of time and place. Of the extraordinary plot – 13th Century BCE again, myth being just older history for the Greeks Hayne quips – Aristotle declares it the most perfect which is a tiny relief when you consider that (a she said earlier) Haynes points out 97-99% of classic texts are lost, and many of them would have been around in Aristotle’s time.
One thing to point up is the liminal space of with Sophocles having chosen the space between noisy public and too-private chambers. Another is emphasising that each character has a surfeit of the goodness that’ll destroy them, Antigone the too-loving sister, Oedipus the too-clever and too-anticipating king, famous re-riddler. The first road-rage killing in drama.
But Haynes is particularly fine in drawing down the symbolism of acts. For instance Jocasta’s suicide is a specifically freighted act – gong towards the bridal bed of sex, and hanging herself: an act of denying everything and wishing to return to a virgin state (hanging is a fate of virgins), literally wanting to never have grown up, had sex, borne children. And the rest of course, those eye-piercing moments and final banishments.
Jocasta has just 120 lines, her privacy giving some credence to this, making her only the third-largest character, after Oedipus and Creon.
In Euripides’ version The Women of Thebes, it’s Oedipus who’s locked away, Jocasta’s honoured as effectively regent queen mother receiving deputations. And there’s a final survival recently unwrapped from mummies in the 1970s. The Chorus from an earlier play Euripides used as source material.
And that’s it, Haynes finishes with an infectious scrabble around for when she’s returning, someone tells us July 18th, and clears before the next show, in fact a re-broadcast of the remarkable Eng-er-Land. The most educative stand-up and a thrilling presentation. Oh and bloody funny on the tragedies.