With powerful themes of anger, hate, devotion, love, death and survival, a new play tells the story of one of the great heroes of the Classical world in the original Ancient Greek and Latin (with English subtitles)

It’s a profoundly dramatic story, dealing with anger, hate, devotion and love, death and survival, which will come to life in the theatre as we listen to the words of the protagonists themselves

Patrick Boyde

Scenes from two of the great epic poems of the classical world – the Iliad of Homer and Virgil’s Aeneid – will be brought to life in an innovative two-part dramatization in Cambridge next month.

Aeneas and the Once and Future Troy, which will be staged at St John’s College, uses material from both poems and will be performed in Ancient Greek and Latin (with English subtitles), giving audiences the chance to experience the full intensity of the poetry in the original languages.

The two performances, on Wednesday 19 and Thursday 20 February, will be given in the College’s new theatre, housed in the former Divinity School. Entrance will be free and open to all, but booking is highly recommended. Places can be reserved by visiting this page.

Unusually, the play brings together two epics which were composed hundreds of years apart (the Iliad is thought to date back to the eighth century BC, whereas the Aeneid was written under the Emperor Augustus in the first century BC). The common thread is Aeneas himself – a warrior and defender of Troy in Homer’s part of the story who becomes the founding father of a “new Troy” (Rome) in Virgil’s completion of the tale.

The scenes use speeches from both poems, and have been arranged and abridged by Professor Patrick Boyde, who has been directing semi-staged productions of plays in Ancient Greek for 10 years. He said: “It’s a profoundly dramatic story, dealing with anger, hate, devotion and love, death and survival, which will come to life in the theatre as we listen to the words of the protagonists themselves. They include humans, among them Priam, Hector and Achilles, and gods such as Jupiter, Juno and Venus.”

The performers and the production team are a group of “the young and not-so-young” from across the University of Cambridge, not all of whom necessarily study Latin or Greek. The starring role of Aeneas himself, for example, will be played by Thomas Michaels – a Swiss mathematician based at St John’s.

Boyde himself is the University’s Emeritus Professor of Italian, who always promised himself that he would read Homer in the original Ancient Greek. He received the final spur one evening early in his retirement, when he found himself chatting to two Classicists over dinner in College.

“Throughout my career I have always been driven by a love of poetry and also the conviction that ‘poetry is what gets left out of translation’,” he explained. “It may sound absurd, but I have studied Italian, French, German and Latin in order to read poetry which was written in those languages, and latterly I have studied Greek to read Homer and Sophocles.”

“When poetry is translated, one of the inevitable casualties is the verbal melody and harmony. This is why I am obsessed by the need to read poetry aloud. A sensitive performance is at once the best kind of literary criticism and the moment when the full potential of the text is realised.”

The new production also deals with powerful and enduring themes. For Boyde, Aeneas is a “more mature kind of hero than Hector or Achilles, or the other great fictional characters we meet in the tale of the siege of Troy. Aeneas is complex and enigmatic, struggling at times with self-doubt, unwilling to accept the mission laid on him by the gods.”

In fact, the two parts of the play track the evolution of his character as one of the first reluctant heroes in any form of literature. At the beginning of the story, he seems a fairly conventional warrior, as he defends Troy against the Greeks. Yet when the Trojans are defeated and the city is razed to the ground, Aeneas is forced to accept new responsibilities and to grow in stature. He rescues his family, instead of seeking death and glory, and soon emerges as the Chosen One portrayed by Virgil: an agent of destiny, and a hero who must seek and win a Promised Land.

A DVD release of the production will be made available at a later date. Audiences can also get a taste of the forthcoming drama by watching the trailer on YouTube.

For more information about this story, please contact Tom Kirk, tdk25@cam.ac.uk, 01223 768377.

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