Murder In Argos: In Conversation with Co-Directors Helena Aeberli and Jahnavi Bhatia
Dania Kamal Aryf
Image description: (1) Helena, clad in a white top and (2) Jahnavi, in a yellow dress, both posing for the camera.
As I make my trek to Lady Margaret Hall on a cold November evening, (without getting lost, for once!) to witness the makings of ‘Murder In Argos’, I am greeted by the overwhelming grandeur of my surroundings. The room where the production team regularly conduct their practice boasts an intricate classical façade of white-washed columns and a sprawling, bright red carpet across the floor. All quite symbolic of the blood, gore and death at the heart of this play.
Ignorantly, I initially assumed that the storyline would involve a homicide taking place amongst displays of minimalistic furniture and somewhat middle-class electrical appliances. I was humbled to realise how wrong I was, especially after I had read the synopsis of the show.
The play, originally written by Mary Nicholson, is a retelling of Oresteia, the classical Greek tragedy concerning the end of the Trojan War and a series of murders and betrayals in its wake. The production company, Votive Theatre, has also collaborated with Uncomfortable Oxford to include the perspective of a post-war Britain caught between the upheavals of class, community and colonialism.
What makes this production exceptionally unique, however, is the fact that the play had never before seen the light of day, despite being written in the 1960s. Stowed away within the archives of Somerville College for decades, Mary Nicholson’s script eventually made its way back to her family, who then reached out to production companies in Oxford to bring her writing to life.
“What most excites us about staging this play is that even though it was written over half a century ago, it is still very much classified as ‘new writing’,” says Co-Director, Helena Aeberli. “The characters are far from the stern and distant figures of Greek tragedy, and the story is one that gives life to the usually homogenised chorus. The poor and common people are placed as the narrators and protagonists of the play, given names, personalities, and personal dramas of their own,” she adds.
Helena is currently a third-year History and Politics undergraduate at Jesus College, and has been involved with theatre throughout her time in Oxford, mainly assuming the roles of co-director and playwright. Several of the productions she has directed include ‘Simulacrum’ (2020), ‘These Quicker Elements’ (2021), and ‘Macbeth’ for the Jesus Cuppers Production in 2019. Helena is also a writer and poet, having been shortlisted for the 2020 OUPS DART Prize, and The ORB Short Fiction Prize in Trinity 2021. Last year, she also co-founded ‘Chaos Productions’, and is currently Social Secretary for the Oxford University Drama Society.
Co-Director Jahnavi Bhatia, meanwhile, is a final year Law student at Harris Manchester, having previously graduated with a dual degree in Journalism and Economics from Boston University, before coming to Oxford. Her involvement in student theatre also spans years of experience – producing, directing and acting in several original shows throughout her time in the US, alongside a production of ‘Arcadia’ by Tom Stoppard. In Trinity Term of 2021, Jahnavi acted in ‘What Happens When Your World Breaks Down?’, a play by Haldi + Co. Productions addressing the mental health crises faced by Oxford students during the pandemic, with a specific focus on the South Asian diaspora.
“What most excites us about staging this play is that even though it was written over half a century ago, it is still very much classified as ‘new writing’. The characters are far from the stern and distant figures of Greek tragedy… The poor and common people are placed as the narrators and protagonists of the play, given names, personalities, and personal dramas of their own.”
I ask the Co-Directors about how the production of ‘Murder in Argos’ came into fruition, especially considering how this script written by Mary Nicholson had never before made a stage debut.
“Votive Theatre advertised that they were going to put on this play, and they were looking for directors. There was an application process and an interview with the producers… to figure out what our working styles were and whether that matched what they were looking for. Generally, how it works in Oxford is that the production house looks for directors, so Votive Theater first had to bid for the right to put on this play, then after they got those rights, they began looking for other crew members,” Jahnavi tells me.
“Once Helena and I were on board, then the two of us along with the co-producers Nathaniel Jones and Myesha Munro had a lot of meetings in Trinity Term to figure out what we wanted to do with this play, and what our creative vision was going to be. We came up with some themes which were important to us, and it was a very collaborative process where we thought about what ideas we really wanted to highlight, and how we would do that in the play. For instance, we really wanted to highlight how the impacts of war and colonialism can last for generations,” she continues.
Helena adds that “at the core of our interpretation lies the repetitive futility of war and its long-term consequences. We wanted to use the play as a medium to explore the consequences of nationalism and glorifying rhetoric in particular, something highly resonant to modern Britain, with its legacy of colonialism and violence – both international and domestic.”
“As Nicholson writes, the play is a ‘timeless trial’ and our staging will reflect this, shifting between distinctive time periods linked to conflicts in British history. This approach to time should be really exciting and energising to see come to life on stage, shedding light both on the themes of the play, and on the modern relevance of classical dramas like the Oresteia.”
Helena and Jahnavi inform me that while the general myth of Orestes and his family remains the same, “it is the actions of the commoners around them that drive the play.” It is through this – and Britain’s relationship with class and colonialism – that Nicholson allows the audience to reflect upon classical myths within the context of her own environment of the 1960s. “Hence, our collaboration with Uncomfortable Oxford is really important to this agenda,” Helena emphasises.
“An issue that often appears in contemporary Britain is the aftermath of England’s colonial history – both on general political thinking, and the way in which this nation understands identity. In everyday Britain, as in the Argos of Nicholson’s play, the competing pulls of community and individual, history and the present, will play a role. It was the desire to make a real difference and foreground these very real issues, as well as presenting them on stage, that drove us to collaborate with Uncomfortable Oxford,” she adds.
“We came up with some themes which were important to us, and it was a very collaborative process where we thought about what ideas we really wanted to highlight, and how we would do that in the play. For instance, we really wanted to highlight how the impacts of war and colonialism can last for generations.”
“So does the play follow Nicholson’s exact script, or have you adapted it to suit a more modern audience? How has this experience made you grow?” I ask, curious as someone who has never been involved with theatre.
“This is a play which has never been performed before, and it is very long,” Jahnavi comments. “So we had the room to truly make it our own, like cutting down certain parts to make it more performance friendly. And also to just imagine how it would look on stage. Because sometimes, when a play has been written but not yet performed, things like transitions from one scene to another may not necessarily be that smooth, for example.”
“Directing is always a very fun process and you definitely get a lot of creative freedom to do what you want with it, and to really emphasise what you want to say. Plus, you get to work with so many talented people,” says Jahnavi.
Helena also adds that,“working with such a large cast is also exciting, and we’ve had a really vibrant rehearsal room where we think intensively about character and motivation before delving into blocking the play. Our cast have been wonderful and have truly come to inhabit their roles, and we hope the production truly does their hard work justice.”
As I sit by the side of the room watching the cast rehearse a scene with the sound of blaring war sirens, the actual fire alarm at LMH coincidentally goes off, to everyone’s annoyance. The practice session was briefly interrupted as we evacuated the building. “This is very on-brand for us, considering how chaotic we are,” Helena laughs, and Jahnavi tells me that, “you’ve just caught us on a very chaotic day.” We stand huddled outside in the cold, and I joke about how the stars have aligned for this all to be a perfect coincidence. Chaos is the only consistent thing in my life that seems to follow me wherever I go.
While chaos does not always result in death and destruction, it is perhaps fair to say that this definitely is not the case for the characters in this play. Killing begets killing, quite literally, in the case of Agamemnon, Orestes and their family – offering all the more reasons to watch its debut at the Keble O’Reilly next week.
‘Murder in Argos: A Timeless Trial’ will be running from Thursday, 11th November till Sunday, 14th November 2021. The show on Friday, 12th November will commence with a discussion involving the Uncomfortable Oxford team, addressing Imperial Amnesia in Britain. For the Saturday evening show on 13th November, the audience will have the opportunity to witness Mary Nichoson’s family join the Co-Directors on the pre-show panel discussion.