Composer offers a distinct and lively take on the tragic genre
LBB caught up with Adelphoi composer Jamie Masters to chat about a project he’s working on - a Greek play, entitled Hippolytos, which is being performed in London later this month. Before becoming a professional composer, Jamie was a Latin and Classics tutor at The University of Cambridge.
LBB> Hi Jamie
LBB> You’ve worked on the play Hippolytos; can you tell me what it’s all about?
JM> It’s something that I wrote the music for back in 1997. I was invited along with Yana Zarifi to perform a set of Ancient Greek tragic choruses at Cambridge, probably on the strength of the work we'd done together on the King's College Greek play in London. People get this idea that the choruses in Greek tragedy just stand there and declaim, saying things like ‘Oh Holy Aphrodite! Come down and shower us with thy blessings’ and that sort of thing, and this is absurd! It’s also very boring, and in fact in Ancient Greece they sang these choruses - you had a group of people who sang and danced, and really that was the point of going to theatre! It was meant to be a great day out for the family, watch a load of singing and dancing, basically like an ancient musical.
Anyway, we decided to take it to other places as well, so it's become international production: apart from the first performance at Cambridge, we've done it in London, Cyprus, and in America, and now it’s being revived in Poland, with some performances back in London at the end of this month.
For the revival, Yana asked me to redo the music, because when I originally did it back in 1997 it was all pretty hokey, old samples etc. so I’ve recreated it, mostly with me playing the violin and the clarinet, and it sounds pretty cool! It’s probably not what you’d think of as being Ancient Greek music, and to be honest it's not authentic, but it is bright and charming and full of life and happiness, so authentic in spirit. With some insane rhythms! Have you ever been to a Greek tragedy?
JM> You wouldn’t want to. Not a modern production, anyway.
LBB> Apart from yours.
JM> Apart from mine. Seriously, I wouldn’t go to one, I mean they’re dreadful. They get this idea that tragedy is all about, I don’t know, sombre moaning of winds, destiny and the harshness of life, and they always inevitably set these things in Sarejevo,or some horrific civil war battleground where everything is painted grey and everyone sounds really unhappy – but that’s not the point of the thing at all! It’s just like watching TV, like watching…
JM> It is - yes, kind of. There are some sad bits, there can also be some funny bits, so that’s part of what I’ve made it my mission to prove.
I was heavily involved in the original production, and I also wrote the narration, which tells the story of the play in verse. The script is in English and the songs are in Greek, so you wouldn’t necessarily understand the songs, but at least you know what they are. And there’s dancing which is done in vaguely Bali-esque style, lots of masks, a lot of Balinese movement, and also there was a certain element of gamelan in the incidental music. I haven’t been involved in this particular production further than recreating the music for the songs, so I don’t know the extent that all these elements have been retained. Basically it’s brilliant music! It’s some of the best stuff I ever did!
LBB> And an excellent script.
JM> And an excellent script, yes.
LBB> And can you give me a very brief synopsis of the play?
JM> Hippolytos is a young man, the son of Theseus (the king of Athens), and he's devoted to the goddess Artemis, so he's decided never to have sex. This annoys Aphrodite, because she is the goddess of sex, and so she sets out to destroy him. She does this by making his stepmother, married to the king, fall in love with him. He's having none of it, so she pretends that he tried to rape her, goes and tells dad, and dad gets furious, doesn’t listen to him, and curses him. He dies in a chariot accident because of the curse, and that’s the end of the story. As he’s dying, the goddess Artemis who he’s always admired and adored comes and says goodbye to him, but then says ‘Sorry, I can’t really help you’, and disappears. A bit of a slap in the face for poor old Hippolytos.
LBB> Pretty tragic then.
JM> Yes, it is a bit of a tragedy. But that’s not where my script ends: I lopped off the final bit of Euripides, so I can end with a beautiful song in praise of Aphrodite, because I’ve learned my lesson: don’t mess with Aphrodite.
Hippolytos will be performed at The Cockpit, Gateforth Street, Marylebone, London NW8 8EH, from 24th-27th February. Tickets can be purchased here.