1964 - 2014

Greek Tragedy at the National Theatre 

National Theatre

Helen McCrory as the title character in the National Theatre's most recent Greek tragedy, Euripides' Medea, directed by Carrie Cracknell (2014).

Greek tragedy has been part of the National Theatre’s repertoire since the company formed. Its first performance of a Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ Philoctetes, was in 1964. 

This exhibit explores how the challenges of staging Greek tragedy have been met on the National Theatre's stages through four themes; performance space, setting (the world of the play), chorus, and masks.

Colin Blakeley as Philoctetes in the National Theatre's first production of a Greek tragedy, Sophocles' Philoctetes, directed by William Gaskill (1964).

The National Theatre has staged Greek tragedies in all three of its performance spaces.

The size and shape of a theatre has a huge impact on how a play is directed, designed and acted. In this section we look at different performance spaces and examples of how these spaces have been used for Greek tragedy. 

Whether playing in the epic Olivier theatre (with a capacity of 1,160) or the flexible black-box space of the Cottesloe (from 2014 Dorfman), we see that Greek tragedy can be adapted to all kinds of shapes and size of theatre space.

The theatre at Epidaurus was built in the fourth century BCE. It can hold around 14 000 people - a greater seating capacity than London's Wembley Arena.
The design of the Olivier theatre was inspired by the theatre at Epidaurus.
Peter Hall and company rehearsing at Epidaurus for The Oresteia (1981)

The design of the Olivier theatre was greatly influenced by one of our oldest surviving Greek theatres - the theatre at Epidaurus in Greece. Most Greek tragedies at the National Theatre are performed in the Olivier. 

Although performance conditions in ancient Greece were very different to those today, the relationship between the two theatres means every Greek tragedy performed in the Olivier already has a spatial connection to the ancient world.

The design of ancient Greek theatres was closely tied to the social function of theatre. 

In ancient Athens, theatre was enjoyed by everyone and generous subsidies were provided to help pay for the performances to keep the cost of theatre-going low.

This democratic attitude towards the theatre is echoed by its shape, which ensures that everyone has a good view of the stage. 

The same can be said of the Olivier theatre.

Poster from Peter Hall's Oresteia (1981). The Oresteia is, in fact, not one play but a trilogy of plays: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers (sometimes called Choephoroe) and Eumenides. 

Peter Hall (Director of the National Theatre from 1973 - 1988) staged Aeschylus' Oresteia in the Olivier in 1981. It was the first Greek tragedy staged on the National Theatre's permanent site on the South Bank.

It was an immense production, featuring a new script written by the poet Tony Harrison, music composed by Harrison Birtwhistle and a chorus of sixteen actors. It went on to be performed in the famous theatre at Epidaurus.

Cassandra and the Chorus in Peter Hall's Oresteia (1981). In the programme the actors were listed all together and, because of the masks, the audience had no way of telling which actor was playing which role.
The set of Peter Hall's Oresteia (1981), designed by Jocelyn Herbert, echoes what we know about ancient Athenian stage spaces.

This image of the set (pictured left) shows how closely it was modelled on what an ancient theatre set might have looked like.

The similarity to what we know of ancient Greek theatre sets is particularly clear from the two paths extending right and left from the round central space. These paths were called ‘eisodoi’ (‘entrances’) by ancient Greeks. The diagram of the ancient theatre (pictured right) shows these and other parts of the theatre in Athens.

Professor Oliver Taplin talks about the National Theatre's architect, Denys Lasdun, and about the transfer of Peter Hall's Oresteia (1981) from the Olivier to Epidaurus.
This diagram shows the key parts of ancient theatres. Seating would be on wooden benches placed on a nearby hillside infront of a large space where much of the acting would take place (the 'orchestra'). The 'skene' was a fairly basic stage building where actors could change their costume or masks and would represent a structure of some kind appropriate for the play.
Ralph Fiennes as Oedipus and Jasper Britton as Creon in Jonathan Kent's production of Sophocles' Oedipus (2008).

The use of the Olivier space in Jonathan Kent's Oedipus (2008) was very different. 

The sparse set was designed by Paul Brown with several of the play's key themes in mind, as Professor Edith Hall explains (right).

In this play Oedipus is searching for a man who has committed a terrible crime. During the course of the play he realises that this man is, in fact, him.

Oedipus' journey back to himself, the culprit, was beautifully illustrated by the set. The large doors slowly turned 360 degrees during the play, showing how no matter how far we travel, we always come back to where we started.

Professor Edith Hall talks about the significance of the set, designed by Paul Brown, in Jonathan Kent's Oedipus (2008).

The Lyttleton theatre has a 'proscenium arch' stage, that is common to most theatres. 

Only two productions of Greek tragedy have been staged in the Lyttleton, both directed by Katie Mitchell: Iphigenia at Aulis (2004) and Women of Troy (2007).

Both productions combined highly naturalistic acting with certain avant-garde elements. The conventional stage space of the Lyttleton supported the combination of traditional and experimental theatre.

Poster for Iphigenia at Aulis,  2004
Poster for Women of Troy, 2007
Ben Daniels as Agamemnon and Peter Needham as the Old Man in Katie Mitchell's production of Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis (2004).
The chorus in Katie Mitchell's Iphigenia at Aulis (2004)

In her production of Iphigenia at Aulis in the Lyttleton, Katie Mitchell used and played with the familiar proscenium-arch space.

The traditional, imagined 'fourth wall' between actors and audience was very deliberately highlighted at some points in the production. In the picture of the chorus (above) you can see how chairs placed by the 'wall' in between stage and audience mark the illusion clearly. 

But at other moments the chorus looked out to the audience and spoke to them and breaking the 'fourth wall' by doing so. In this way this more traditional space was used to create more avant-garde effects in the production.

Euripides' Women of Troy, sometimes referred to as 'Trojan Women', is a play that explores the horrors that wait for those who survive after war.

The women, for whom the play is named, are the wives of the now-dead heroes of Troy. They are waiting to hear what the victorious Greeks want to do with them. They know that they are all to become slaves.The tragedy of the play lies in the powerlessness of these women. 

A particularly gripping scene shows how the famed Helen of Troy, a traitor but a Greek, is able to save herself. Although Helen had spent most of the war at Troy with her new lover, Paris, she is now being taken back to Greece to be Menalaus' wife as if nothing had ever happened. 

It is one of the most gruelling Greek tragedies. The play ends with the women of Troy being taken off to slavery.

Set model for Katie Mitchell's Women of Troy (2007), designed by Bunny Christie.The grim functional space resembles a ferry terminal with cargo doors on stage left and a service lift where the women await their departure from Troy.
Professor Edith Hall discusses the staging of Katie Mitchell's Women of Troy (2007).

The Cottesloe theatre (Dorfman from 2014) is a more flexible ‘black box’ space. 

Two productions handled the flexibility of the space in different ways.

John Burgess and Peter Gill chose to stage Antigone (1983, pictured right) in a proscenium-arch. They brought the audience and actors closer together by having the chorus (see right, the group in the background) sitting in the front row when the play began, and then proceeding to get up from their seats to join the actors on stage.

It was as if the audience were getting up on stage and the audience were the chorus.

Richard Perkins, Jane Lapotaire, Vincenzo Nicoli and chorus in John Burgess and Peter Gill's Antigone (1983).
Poster for Katie Mitchell's production of Aeschylus' Oresteia (1999)

The Cottesloe space looked radically different in Katie Mitchell’s production of The Oresteia (1999), which used a ‘thrust’ model with the audience on three sides of the stage.

Following Peter Hall's production of the Oresteia in 1981, the trilogy of plays were produced for a second time in 1999 in Katie Mitchell's bold new version, using a translation by Ted Hughes. This was the first of three productions of Greek Tragedy at the National Theatre she directed: the Oresteia (1999), Iphigenia at Aulis (2004) and Women of Troy (2007).

Katie Mitchell in rehearsal for Women of Troy (2007).
A scene from Katie Mitchell's Oresteia (1999). Agamemnon, who sacrificed his own daughter to the gods, has returned home to his wife, Clytemnestra. She has prepared a kind of 'red carpet' for him made up of little girls' dresses as a gruesomely poignant welcome back gesture.

One of the key moments in the first play saw a 'carpet' made of girls' dresses (significant for the play) stretching down the length of the stage (see left).

Images and action was projected onto the back wall, generated from cameras producing a live feed from other parts of the stage (see right).

Professor Oliver Taplin describes how live video projection formed part of Katie Mitchell's Oresteia (1999).
Robert Bowerman, Asta Sighvats and Wendy Kweh in rehearsal, for Katie Mitchell's Oresteia (1999).
Asta Sighvats as Iphigenia in Katie Mitchell's Oresteia (1999).

Very few directors choose to set their production of Greek tragedy in fifth-century BCE Athens (when the plays would have been first performed). 

The creative choices made about the setting allow each new production to cast a different light on the ancient play.

Productions at the National Theatre have been set in both ancient and contemporary worlds, in 1940s Greece and in Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

Often the costumes, set and lighting suggest rather than define the setting, so we can't be absolutely definite about when and where the tragedy takes place. 

That being said, the majority of productions at the National Theatre have been staged in contemporary worlds (i.e. twentieth or twenty-first century).

We can see the range of possibilities from the production pictures that follow.

The set for William Gaskill's Philoctetes (1964), designed by Jocelyn Herbert.

Sophocles' Philoctetes directed by William Gaskill in 1964 was the first production of Greek tragedy the National Theatre ever staged and was performed in what is now the Old Vic Theatre.

The play was set in what many would recognise as an ancient setting. The stage was sparse, the all male cast wore short tunics and carried swords (see the costume list, right), and the language of Kevin Johnstone's version maintained a highly poetic, 'tragic' tone.

The Greek tragedies directed by Peter Hall (The Oresteia 1981, The Oedipus Plays 1996 and The Bacchai 2002) tended to stick to a setting in a recognisably 'ancient' world. In all of these productions there were relatively few props used, as would have been the case in ancient Greek theatre.

Peter Hall's Oedipus Plays (1996)
Peter Hall's Bacchai (2002)

In John Burgess and Peter Gill's Antigone (1983) the hemlines of the dresses, and the dapper suits and trilby hats of the chorus placed the tragedy around the time of the second world war. 

Post-war is apt for a play with a plot like Antigone’s which explores what happens to the dead after they are defeated. The updated setting allows modern audiences to connect with their existing ideas about war and communities.

Jane Lapotaire as Antigone and the Chorus in John Burgess and Peter Gill's Antigone (1983).
Christopher Eccleston as Creon in Polly Findlay's Antigone (2012).

In the most recent staging of Antigone in the Olivier, directed by Polly Findlay (2012), the costume and set conjured the feeling of an Eastern European city after the fall of a dictator or government, although some moments resonated with the immediate aftermath of 9/11 or the capture of Osama Bin Laden. 

The same post-war resonances are tapped into. Added to this is our recognition of the modern politician in the character of Creon, perhaps as an all-too-eager new dictator.

Annie Castledine’s production of Women of Troy (1995) took a different approach. Here an eclectic mix of times and locations were evoked by the actors’ accents and costume, or to the cultural figures they alluded to in these. 

Michael Billington sums up the variety in this production: 

'Rosemary Harris’s Hecuba seems to have stepped out of classical tragedy. The chorus of Trojan Women are multi-cultural European-Asia-African mixture. Janie Dee’s Helen is pure Marilyn Monroe, her cuckolded husband, Menelaus, a drawling officer from the Southern States and the Greek soldiers Americans in battle-fatigues.' 

(Guardian 18.03.95)

Janie Dee as Helen and Peter McEnery as Menelaus in Annie Castledine's Women of Troy (1995).

The most recent Greek tragedy at the National Theatre, Carrie Cracknell's Medea (2014), set the play in a contemporary world, as most productions have done in the past decade. 

There were some very modern moments - Medea uses Jason's mobile phone to take a picture of him with his sons. And yet, the peeling wallpaper of Medea's house and the costumes of Medea and the chorus suggested a slight remove in time and space from the world of the audience. It was a setting that was recognisable but strange at the same time.

The chorus of ancient Greek tragedy was traditionally made up of twelve performers who would dance, sing and act in unison.

Ancient Greeks used the chorus like modern directors use lighting, sound and set design. The chorus enhanced and shaped the audience's understanding of the play and its themes.

While the chorus in many ways defines Greek tragedy, audiences' expectations of what the chorus 'is' have changed over the centuries. The chorus has been used in a wide range of ways in modern productions.

The productions of Greek tragedy at the National Theatre show just how much variation there can be in how a chorus can speak, sing and move on stage.

The chorus can be one of the greatest challenges for any director of Greek tragedy. They must decide how many actors to use, if they speak (or sing?), if it should be in unison or if the lines should be split (or a combination of the two techniques), whether to use music and dance, and how to involve the chorus in all that goes on onstage.

The chorus of Katie Mitchell's Women of Troy (2007).

There are very few times when we speak in unison nowadays. It's understandable, then, that following the ancient Greek practice of unison speech is considered difficult for actors to do, and difficult for audiences to listen to and follow.

In the very first production of Greek tragedy staged by the National Theatre, Sophocles’ Philoctetes (1964), the chorus’s lines were spoken mostly by small groups, and sometimes by the whole chorus. The script (right) shows which actors would be speaking which lines.

Page from the script of William Gaskill's Philoctetes (1964).
Harrison Birtwhistle, composer who wrote the music for Peter Hall's Oresteia (1981).

The Oresteia directed by Peter Hall approached the delivery of choral speech from a different perspective (aided by an unusually long rehearsal period of 9 weeks).

In the sample page from the script below, you can see how each section of text had its own 'pulse' (the number refers to beats per minute) and the little lines over the words show how stress would be placed on the same syllables by all chorus members. This meant the sound of the chorus was completely unified, as Professor Oliver Taplin explains (right).

Page of the script from Peter Hall's Oresteia (1981). Here we see three different speeds (‘pulses’) for the delivery of these lines indicated in the margins, with marks over the words indicating the stress in each line of verse.
Professor Oliver Taplin explains the significance of music and poetry in Peter Hall's Oresteia (1981).

However, in many productions (perhaps even the majority) the speeches of the chorus are divided up between individuals actors.

In Polly Findlay's Antigone (2012), the chorus were even given individual characters (although not names – the anonymity of a chorus is one of its key sources of dramatic power).

In these pages from the script (pictured right), we see the different titles given to members of the chorus: Office Boy, Secret Police, State Security.

Annotated script from Polly Findlay's Antigone (2012).
Christopher Eccleston as Creon, with the chorus, in Polly Findlay's Antigone (2012).

The amount of detail that went into the creation of the individual characters in this chorus is clear from the carefully plotted and recorded array of props and 'personal items' given to each.

The setting list (pictured right) shows the different kinds of items, appropriate to each charachter, that were set on each of the desks on stage.

The setting list for Polly Findlay's Antigone (2012).
Ben Power and director Polly Findlay talk about how they decided on and workshopped this kind of delivery of choral lines in Antigone (2012).  
The company of Polly Findlay's Antigone (2012).

In Carrie Cracknell's production of Euripides' Medea (2014), the chorus used the full range of ways of delivering their lines.

The chorus both sang and danced - sometimes in unison, sometimes individually. 

The spoken lines were divided up between individual members. At times, these spoken lines were accompanied by other members of the chorus humming, creating in eerie background to the words.

Those who had a professional training in dance performed more complicated routines. Those who were particularly good singers sang solos.

The chorus in Carrie Cracknell's Medea (2014), with set designed by Tom Scutt.

Masks were an important part of how ancient theatre looked and was produced. 

Working with masks changes how actors move and speak, and can create powerful theatrical effects, even on the modern stage.

A Fury in costume from Peter Hall's Oresteia (1981).

Peter Hall used masks in all of the three productions of Greek tragedy he directed at the National: The Oresteia, The Oedipus Plays and The Bacchae.

The masks were all carefully made and drew inspiration from what we know about ancient masks.

Using masks means that actors must use their bodies differently, since they cannot rely on subtle facial expressions to communicate their thoughts to the audience.

Professor Oliver Taplin talks about the use of masks in Peter Hall's Oresteia (1981).

‘The first problem is that of the masks. You can rationalise till you’re blue in the face (and some very strange arguments are used in the programme to justify the masks) but the blunt Emperor-has-no-clothes truth is that masks make language very difficult to hear and deny the actor one of his most basic weapons.' 

(Michael Billington, Guardian 30.11.81)

‘There is nothing more calculated to put off the most dedicated theatregoer than the prospect of a Greek tragedy, particularly if it is played in masks. But I defy anyone not to be stirred, disturbed and amazed by Peter Hall’s production...’ 

(Peter Heple, The Stage 23.5.02)

Poster for Peter Hall's Bacchai (2002)
The chorus of Peter Hall's Bacchai (2002) in rehearsal, without their masks.
The chorus of Peter Hall's Bacchai (2002) masked and in performance.
Professor Edith Hall explores the use of masks and movement in Peter Hall's Bacchai (2002).
Greg Hicks as Dionysus in Peter Hall's Bacchai (2002).

Even where masks are not used, some directors have chosen to create a mask-like quality to their characters' make up. 

We can see below how the mask used for the prophet Tiresias in Peter Hall's 'Oedipus Plays' (1995, pictured below left) has some resonances with the heavy make up used for the Tiresias character in Polly Findlay's Antigone (2012, pictured below right).

Poster for Oedipus, 2008

The short film below offers a visual overview of some of the objects used in the National Theatre's productions of Greek Tragedy. Discussed are:

1. The boombam, one of the musical instruments used in Peter Hall's Oresteia (1981).

2. Masks created by Jocelyn Herbert for the chorus of Old Men of Argos and the Furies in that same production, shown in detail.

3. The set model designed by Paul Brown for Jonathan Kent's Oedipus (2008).

Aside from masks, our knowledge is limited about how ancient Greeks would have used a range of stage equipment.

We only have the naked text, with no stage directions or scenic description. This creates the opportunity for modern directors to use as many or few of the traditional storytelling tools as they like.

The NT archive holds records of all National Theatre productions and is open to everyone to research and explore.


This project is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Credits: Story

Curator — Dr Lucy Jackson
Archivist — Erin Lee
Senior Digital Producer — Maya Gabrielle
Assistant Producer — Ellen McCabe
Guest curators — Professor Edith Hall; Professor Oliver Taplin
Films — Dominic Brouard; Chloe White
Special thanks to — Lyn Haill, Emma Bull
Design — Kweku Bennin

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.