On a cold and frosty night in Lancaster, a small audience gathered in Lancaster Castle to see the Rose Company’s performance of Joanna Lumley’s Iphigenia. I was unsure how an all-female cast would interpret Lumley’s text as it is arguably a very male-centric plot. However, as soon as the first haunting notes were played on the flute as the cast performed the Seikilos Epitaph (translated by Aliki Chapple), which is the oldest known piece of musical composition, the audience was transfixed and the atmosphere set for the staging of an ancient and tragic story. What I found particularly fascinating was the way in which a group of women were not only able to play men convincingly, but to represent the complex codes of masculine honour into which women are bound as commodities. Though the tension between Agamemnon (Ruth Gregson) and Menelaus (Helen Katamba) was palpable and at times violent, Gregson was also able to show the intense struggle between Agamemnon’s need to uphold masculine codes of honour and the love of his daughter. Iphigenia’s (Catherine Bateman) willing sacrifice also allowed the actors to explore the position of women in the play, leading to emotionally charged scenes with Clymenestra (Aliki Chapple), Agamemnon, and Achilles (Elle Lund). It was an enjoyable and poignant performance showing, through female actors, the complex social and gender codes at work in classical literature and, by extension Lumley’s own early modern England.
The play and cast have since toured the country and enjoyed great success with the play. Below are some thoughts from two members of the cast, who are also students at Lancaster University, about their experiences whilst being involved with the play:
Catherine Bateman (Iphigenia)
Performing in Lady Jane Lumley’s translation of Iphigenia was an amazing experience. I was given the title role – an exciting and daunting prospect! The thought of performing in front of multiple audiences at various venues around the country just seemed like a crazy thing to find myself doing. It was so much fun being part of it, and Iphigenia is such a great play. The character of Iphigenia has a lot of developing to do, from quite a naive child to a brave and noble woman, which proved challenging at times. Rehearsals of an all-female cast learning how to be “blokes” were very funny, and learning to work together as a group created strong bonds between cast members.
Elle Lund (Achilles)
My name is Elle Lund and I played Achilles in The Rose Company’s production of Iphigenia et Aulida.
I found the company through Lancaster University’s Feminist Society Facebook page, advertising auditions for an all-female cast to perform an English translation of a Greek play I’d never heard of. With a friend for mutual support (who became the first of two incarnations of the title role), we became part of an exciting new project, with a set of intimidatingly talented actors and director! I can’t stress just how scared I was, and yet this was the opportunity of a lifetime for me (clichéd, but true). I’d just about given up my dream of acting in any capacity as lost, my habitual anxious state repeatedly holding me back over the years, but the all-female aspect of this company appealed to me, and created a safe, supportive environment in which I was able to learn more than I thought I’d ever get the chance to.
As well as rehearsals, the company organised and ran vocal and physical workshops which were invaluable to amateur thespians like me! When asked for a ‘Rose Company’ anecdote I will unfailingly talk about the ‘manning-up workshops’, potentially one of the most enlightening yet almost harrowing parts of the process. Have you ever tried to find, let alone move, your centre of gravity? I had not, and as I generally think of myself as a slightly off-balance person, wasn’t even sure that I had one. Nonetheless, altering balance, posture, movement were all part of this binary-swap session, a lesson in drag which ended up pretty revelatory in terms of how social factors shape the body, and which bodies are ‘allowed’ to take up more space. Also Aliki made us prop penises (penii?) out of condoms filled with hair gel and masterfully constructed to resemble the male genitalia. It’s an art form.
Achilles was a tricky part to decipher, his motives often blurred by his unfailingly tactless actions. A nobleman, respected, a soldier; that much was certain. In the year I have been playing him he has also, by degrees, been lawful, bland, foppish, smug, arrogant and selfish. Not exactly the great hero of traditional narrative! But where’s the fun in playing a hero? And in a play translated by a woman, directed and acted by a group of women, I took pleasure in taking the mythological Achilles down a peg or two (as, I feel, did Lady Jane Lumley in her translation), and my/his ineptitude emphasised the strength and importance of the female characters, Iphigenia and Clytemnestra, with whom he shared the stage.