The Cambridge Greek Play 2019 – Interview with Director Daniel Goldman

Katherine Wills, Theo Sawkins 14 October 2019

The Cambridge Greek Play is arguably the biggest classical production that Cambridge offers. As such, TCS will be running a little bit of a publicity feature in the run-up to the show.

Taking place every three years, 2019’s production is Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, and is being directed by professional director Daniel Goldman, known for his work on Thebes Land and with the CASA Latin American Theatre Festival. The play’s assistant producers, Katherine Wills and Theo Sawkins, caught up with him to ask about his own experience of directing the show.

What are the challenges and rewards of performing a play in Ancient Greek?

I think there’s a real joy in performing these plays in the Greek. Obviously, it’s a challenge because it’s a language that no one speaks outside of a few brilliant classicists. But the opportunity to listen to these plays in the original language allows us to access them, not how they were meant to be accessed, because our context is different, but on a visceral level. To hear those sounds, those rhythms, and those metres allows us on a gut level to connect across centuries and millennia, to be possibly taken on a journey further away.

What drew you to Oedipus at Colonus?

I first read Oedipus at Colonus when I was 21 as a student here at Cambridge taking the Tragedy Paper. It’s a piece that immediately moved me, it’s a domestic tragedy, it is the story of an old man who is fearful of dying. When I first read it, I wasn’t fearful of dying but I am now, aged 39. But this idea of someone who is scared of dying, surrounded by family he loves and/or feels betrayed by, on a human level that makes sense. On a personal level, I have now seen my father in hospital having a heart operation, tubes everywhere, and it’s a shocking sight. I’m not the only one, so many of us have had that experience. It’s a very simple play about death, about legacy, about love and all of those things have always interested me. But I find Oedipus at Colonus particularly moving and always have done.

And then there’s another side, an intellectual inspiration which is Pinochet’s visit to the UK in 1998. That was an interesting dilemma – what do you do? Do you offer healthcare to this tyrant, this dictator, this polluted politician? Mugabe died last month. These are tyrants and yet they are loved, we see them with their families. But also, there’s this idea of dying as an exile, what it means to receive healthcare and to receive protection from [a foreign] government. That episode was an important incident in my life in terms of my becoming political.

Why do you think Greek tragedies still have resonance today?

I think all good plays have resonance today. We’re talking about three great writers, specifically Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, who were brilliant in their age because they knew what makes us human: our foibles, our ambitions, our greatness. They told great stories. They’re talking about human experiences and that doesn’t change. Context changes, but our humanity hasn’t evolved that quick, at least not emotionally. Emotionally, we’ve got a prehistoric cortex, which means we behave certain ways in certain situations. I think these guys captured that, as other great writers have through all the ages. They’re all dealing with what we get wrong in the hope that we might learn as an audience or as a reader, to act better/kinder.

A significant amount of your work includes plays in foreign language, how do you overcome the challenge of cultural differences?

I’ve had the opportunity to work in a number of different countries in a number of different languages. I’ve always worked with artists from those countries. It’s a question of listening, and that’s the director’s job anyway: to get out of the way and let the story be told and let the performers be truthful to themselves. I very much trust my actors and those who know their culture, to share that culture. What I can share is what it means to be human, I can work with actors all over the world and we can all work together at a human level as we have a capacity to share the same needs as basic as hunger, sleep, food, sex, power, money. We’re all scared of death, we all have fathers or mothers, we all know what it is to love, we know what it is to lose. Beyond that, it’s about listening and working with others. But I would do that with a play in English, it doesn’t change, that’s one of the things I’ve learnt.

Can you tell us a bit more about the world of the hospital in this production?

Oedipus sits for most of the show on a rock, and I thought what is the rock today, where do we go when lives end? They end in bed, in hospitals, especially in my own experience of family members. Jemima Robinson, our designer, and I looked at a lot of hospitals and their architecture as well as end of life spaces. There are parallels between that and the Greek world. Yes, in the text he’s out in the open, yes in our play he’s inside, but there’s still this sense of below and above, the world outside and the world of the grove or hospital inside.

At the same time, you can’t stick to it too religiously. You have to make changes, allowing ourselves to be free in our thinking. All the things that an audience in Greece might take for granted, they knew exactly what the situation was, they knew who Oedipus was. Our job is to find that context. I knew I didn’t want to do a traditional everyone-in-robes, maybe I will one day, but not for this play. This play felt very modern and very close and I wanted to put something on stage that everyone in the audience has an experience of. Even if you haven’t personally seen a family member in hospital, you’ve seen a movie where someone’s dying in hospital. It was important to me that this is an emotional piece, and to have that direct emotional plug-in through the world of the hospital was important for making something from 3,000 years ago feel more accessible.

And then one of those coincidences when life is stranger than fiction: the play is set in the world of the sacred grove and Pinochet was treated in the ‘Grovelands’ Priory Hopsital. That parallel has been very affirming of what we’re doing.

Oedipus at Colonus is on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from October 16th to 19th.