Andromache, Racine’s masterpiece, one of European theatre’s greatest dramas opens tonight, performed by Oxford Theatre Guild in Oxford’s Trinity College’s 17th century chapel.
Transformed into a theatre for one week only it has been a labour of love for Director James McDougall to stage an English Language version of Andromache.
“It was just one of the most beautiful – austere but passionate – things I’d ever read. I just wanted to put it on the stage”
The Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford University has spent half a lifetime brining about the project and is finally going to see his dreams realised.
So what is its attraction? “Andromache explores the destructive forces of ‘unrequited love’, which for Racine’s audiences meant feminine virtue and faithfulness and masculine passion and glory. Now we would call it emotional abuse and gaslighting, recognising the manipulative games that people who crave attention, validation or submission play against their victims,” he explains.
“But it is also a play about fighting to survive and women who are determined to be heard.
“I read Andromaque in French in my first year as undergraduate and fell in love with it at once,” he says. “It was just one of the most beautiful – austere but passionate – things I’d ever read. I just wanted to put it on the stage.”
What James had not realised was that Andromache had only ever been performed in English when renowned theatre company Cheek by Jowl commissioned a translation from David Bryer in 1984.
He tracked Bryer down, who by bizarre coincidence had just found the original manuscript in his attic, and the pair have worked on this revised translation, creating a fresh, modern translation for 21st century audiences.
“It was an extraordinary moment when Bryer’s spiral-bound pages, the only surviving available script, arrived in the post,” James says.
“This is not a love story. The war might be over, and all its heroes dead. But their children are left to pick up the pieces”
Bryer had been planning to revise his original translation into a more modern format and spurred on by James’ enthusiasm finished the revisions in three months.
The result is tighter and more contemporary than the 1984 version, which was acclaimed by reviewers then for its style and precision.
James says: “It’s been a huge privilege to be able to revive it for a new generation of audiences. It definitely deserves to be seen and read more widely.”
However, it was only by joining OTG in 2018 that he could fulfil his ambition, “I finally found a non-professional company with a talent pool that could really do a play as challenging as this one.” James says.
This new version will get its first performance in Oxford’s Trinity College Chapel from tonight, supported by Cheek by Jowl’s workshops with OTG.
So who is Andromache and what is her story? “She is the widow of Troy’s greatest soldier, Hector, who was killed by the Greek hero, Achilles, who was then killed by Paris.
After ten years bloody war, Troy lies in ruins, its king and his sons slaughtered, the women and children carried off and parcelled out to the victors. Andromache saves her son Astyanax, but they are both taken captive by Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus. This is when Andromache starts – a year has passed since the fall of Troy.
“In otg i finally found a non-professional company with a talent pool that could really do a play as challenging as this”
“It’s a story about how wars don’t end, even when they’re over, how men take the trauma home and the women and children who survive them live with the long-term consequences. It’s about the lengths we will go to get what we want, especially when we crave power over others, but they deny us,” James explains.
“And it’s about male entitlement—Racine called it gloire but we might now call it toxic masculinity—and the women who have to deal with it.
“This is not a love story. The war might be over, and all its heroes dead. But their children are left to pick up the pieces.”
Steeped in history and written over 350 years ago for the French Court then housed in the Louvre Palace, OTG’s Andromache is a deliberately modern production.
“Choosing to clash the play’s different temporalities – a classical storyline, Trinity chapel representing a 17th century palace, contemporary language and modern dress—is one obvious way of highlighting its relevance,” James says. “However, our production has been conceived very much in the light (and dark) of our current contexts.”
And so for one week only Trinity College chapel has been turned into a theatre, providing an intimate and historic space to observe these fascinating mythical characters struggling with some very modern anxieties.
OTG’s Andromache by Jean Racine runs from September 20-25 at Trinity College Chapel, Broad Street. To book via Tickets Oxford go to https://www.ticketsoxford.com/events/andromache-by-jean-racine or ring 01865 305305