An interview with Natalie York, director of Philoctetes
Tell us about the play.
It’s a Greek tragedy which surrounds three central characters: Ulysses, Neoptolemus – the son of Achilles – and Philoctetes. The setting is the end of the Trojan War. Earlier on in the war, Philoctetes has been rejected by the Greek army for having been very badly wounded – the Greek army with their idea of heroism couldn’t deal with it, so they reject him. They basically dump him on an island! Unfortunately, ten years later, they realise that they need him to finish war. They have to come back and persuade him to join them. They decide to do this by tricking him, by telling him he’s going to go home. It becomes a sort of a power play between the three central characters: Ulysses, who just wants to get Philoctetes to the war; Philoctetes, who just wants to go home,; and Neoptolemus, who is caught between the two, unable to decide whether to betray this man whom he has just met, whom he believes to be good, or to betray the army and his people.
And your take on the play?
What’s fascinating is Sophocles’ understanding of character and motivation, so we’re going to keep that. But, firstly, we are setting the play in World War I. We are performing it in English. We’ve cut it all down: cut out the chorus, cut out all the extraneous characters. It sounds a little bit blasphemous but we’re getting rid of the more restrictive elements of Greek tragedy, which can impose things like magical bows and gods. In the original, Philoctetes has a magical bow, which is a useful plot device – it’s because of the bow that the Greeks need him. What we’ve done is that he has an early design for a tank, so that the army needs his mind. We’ve also made it very short – a 45-minute combination of melodrama and thriller.
When I was reading the original text, I got so worked up for the three central characters that I forgot about the chorus even when they were present. It feels as if Sophocles is trying to write a really intense, very modern, intimate and claustrophobic drama about these three characters, and as if he had to put all the extraneous, Greek-tragedy elements which do not fit the story at all. It’s a fun experiment to get rid of all that, and to let the characters and the language speak for themselves. And I think it works.
Philoctetes isn’t your typical Greek tragedy with bloodshed at the end?
It’s a very strange play. It’s almost never done, which is one of the reasons I really wanted to do it. I read the play for the first time when I was about 14, and I’ve always wanted to do it because I loved the characters so much. I wasn’t able to stage it with theatre companies in London because, frankly, it’s not something that’s going to be that popular there. That’s what is so great about Oxford. You have the freedom to do something different and a bit more unusual. The language is absolutely beautiful, but no one ever does it because it’s very problematic; it doesn’t have a normal plot structure, the normal tropes of Greek tragedy, which makes it very unusual and interesting.
It’s a phenomenally physical play. Especially the character Philoctetes is a very physical role. He’s a cripple, and we have his arm bound in huge iron braces, sort of World-War-I braces that they had on people with polio. It almost looks like a torture device. We’ve got Moritz Borrmann playing Philoctetes. He’s someone who’s very physically imposing which is great. But it was more interesting to shrink him down a little bit, to find ways of making him physically inhabit that position of someone who is physically completely incapable. It’s taken a lot of rehearsal to get there.
Does your production resemble a particular movement in terms of style, or the theatre of a modern playwright?
The language in itself is comparable, in terms of its treatment of character, to something like Measure for Measure, the neither quite tragic nor quite comic Shakespeare plays. In terms of drama, it’s very visceral. There’re no murders on stage but physically it’s definitely dark and twisted. I keep on thinking of Quentin Tarantino, in fact. It’s in a hyper-real environment. In terms of tone, when you’re watching a Tarantino film, you enter this world, where everything is slightly heightened and more extreme, like in Inglourious Bastards or Django Unchained or Pulp Fiction. Everything is slightly more extreme than it would be in the everyday. That tone is something I’ve been trying to go for. Philoctetes itself presents an extreme situation. The language is quite florid and Shakespearean, but also extreme. The whole thing has to be heightened and dream-like to work, or more nightmarish than dream-like. One more name that comes to mind is Jez Butterworth. His language again is florid but also dark.
What’s best thing about Philoctetes?
What drew me to the play in the first place were really the language and the characters, which are fantastic. I think Sophocles is the very best at creating character and finding the language to evoke character.
PHOTO/ Philoctetes Production
Philoctetes will run from 29th May to 1st June (Wednesday to Saturday of 6th Week) in the Corpus Christi Auditorium.