Philoctetes

Wed 29th May – Sat 1st June 2013

reviews

Martin de Bourmont

at 08:50 on 30th May 2013

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Corpus Christi’s production of Philoctetes proposes a clever adaption of Sophocles’ contribution to Trojan War literature. Having cut down on the original’s cast of supporting characters, this adaption concentrates its attention on the psychological battles waged between three characters – Ulysses, played by Joe Rolleston, Neoptolemus, played by Redmond Traynor, and the eponymous Philoctetes, played by Morliz Borrmann.

Perhaps most impressive was the fluidity with which director Natalie York transposed the play’s setting from the plains of ancient Anatolia to a Western Europe blighted by the mass slaughters of World War I. Philoctetes’ “magical bow” has been updated for the occasion; rather than a master archer, Philoctetes is now a scientist in possession of blueprints for a new tank capable of ending the war. The actors’ greatest success is in their ability to convey the ethical stances of their characters through subtle, yet telling mannerisms. Traynor’s interpretation of the idealistic Neoptolemus elevates his character above the naivety one might ascribe him with a consistently rigid posture denoting a well entrenched, albeit principled, world-weariness. Conversely, Rolleston portrays a Ulysses possessed by a slippery confidence that facilitates the amoral calculations necessitated by his utilitarian aims. He makes demands of Neoptolemus while clutching him in an awkward, needlessly intimate manner and executes his military salutes from across the stage with a careless sweep of the hand. Rolleston’s portrayal of Ulysses depicts a man convinced that his survival will depend on his ability to dominate his environment. His skill is further demonstrated by his ability to reveal the multiple facts of Ulysses’ personality: the calculating stoic endowed with extraordinary intelligence coexists with a brutal and efficient soldier occasionally prey to terrible bouts rage. Both are crucial to our understanding of Ulysses as a Machiavellian reminiscent of that ultimate survivor Talleyrand: determined, brilliant, and malicious; a man simultaneously capable of the highest loyalty and most fearsome amorality. Conversely, Moritz Borrmann’s performance as Philoctetes shows a wounded man stripped of his dignity and painfully aware that he may never recover it. This performance was made all the more persuasive thanks to the production’s costume designer who equipped Philoctetes with a torn, sweat-stained uniform, complete with painted wounds and a leg brace.

If the production was unsuccessful in any way it was in the actors’ performance of scenes depicting aggression and torture, which sometimes appeared mechanical and uncoordinated. This, however, does not detract the viewer’s attention to any significant degree. It should also be noted that this is a student production performed by a student cast, whose talents are most apparent in the delivery of Sophocles’ emotionally and philosophically charged lines.

In any case, the play’s subject matter alone should provide one with sufficient cause for viewing. York’s decision to transform Philoctetes’ bow into a tank is particularly intelligent, as it stimulates an uneasy reflection on man’s increasing alienation from war by machines. Why would any World War I commander go searching for a wounded soldier-turned mentally unstable recluse? Only a scientist capable of dreaming up the most lethal of war machines could merit such treatment in the face of the widespread mechanized carnage inaugurated by World War I. Still, Philoctetes is ultimately no less expendable than the millions of others who perished in the suicidal marches launched over no-man’s land. He is of value only in relation to what he is capable of building. “We can use the body to extract the secrets of the mind,” warns Ulysses. Philoctetes’ world is our own, dominated by technology and regulated by the fragility of flesh.

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Wyatt Miles

at 10:09 on 30th May 2013

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Natalie York’s version of Sophocles’s Philoctetes, put on by the Corpus Owlets at the Corpus Christi Auditorium was both engaging and visceral. By transposing the time period of the play to the era of Word War I, York focuses the audience on a moment in history where death, honor and the willingness to fight for one’s country are no longer seen as an amalgam of militaristic pride. The First World War is an excellent context for Philoctetes because of the thematic questions it presents. The play is about miscommunication, soldiers questioning their superiors, the search for justice above victory and the attempt to find a moral compass against the provocation of deceptive language. All these ideas are applicable to those who fought and died in the trenches; York reminds the audience with this production that these questions remain unanswered and bloodied by the attempts of those in the past.

By stripping the play of its traditional Greek structure, York changes the audience’s expectations for tragedy and forges a medium of her own. In an interview with The Oxford Student Online, York said, “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.” Interestingly York moves away from the “magical” and tries to represent the “real.” Instead of using Philoctetes’s powerful bow said to have been handed down to him by Heracles, York changes this weapon into plans for a new type of tank. This device swap works for the time period though Philoctetes’ (Moritz Borrmann) importance to ending the war feels somewhat pointless once Ulysses (Joe Rolleston) and Neoptolemus (Redmond Traynor) have their hands on the design.

The most interesting part of the play for me was the debate between all three characters about the power of language vs. the power of action. Because Philoctetes has been isolated for so long and lives in such a wounded condition, the only real weapon he wields is his ability to moralize and justify through language. Moritz Borrmann as Philoctetes, did an impressive job of bringing this feeling out on stage. Hobbling around the stage on crutches with a bound and bleeding leg, Borrman was able to articulate his lines with confidence and dexterity thus adequately representing Philoctetes’s intellectual presence. Even though there were a few vocal mistakes, Borrmann was fascinating to watch, his attention to his wounded condition and the way he reacts to being betrayed by Neoptolemus feels authentic. Ulysses who is historically renown for his talents as an orator is interestingly forced to adopt a means of physical action when dealing with Philoctetes. Joe Rolleston plays Ulysses as a hardheaded officer with no time for emotional involvement. Rolleston’s best moments are in his interactions with Neoptolemus, where he represents himself as being stuck between the influential powers of language and force.

In the end as Ulysses yields to Neoptolemus’s methods for dealing with Philoctetes, the audience sees that each character is bound to the other through the horrors of war—the unsaid rule rises to the surface—this idea is that any of them would do anything to each other in order to secure their own safety and the possibility of returning home.

York’s production lasts around forty-five minutes and is well costumed according to the period. If I had to label a weakness for the production, it would start with what I also view to be York’s ingenuity, her process of limiting Sophocles’s structure. Because of the imposed limitations the audience is forced to keep a quick pace in following the action on stage. Every thing that is said matters even more—therefore the actors come under a new pressure and speed that can keep them from focusing on the development of their own individual tragic nature. I did not really get the sense that Philoctetes had undergone the entirety of a tragic shift. I was left wanting to know more about each character without the basis for exploring each story myself.

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