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Greek Odyssey

Simon Goldhill explains how he came to be hooked on Greek tragedy at an early age – and has stayed hooked.

I saw my first Greek play in 1973 on the night England failed to qualify for the World Cup, when they could not score against Poland. I stood in a dingy fish and chip shop near Waterloo Station and watched the last minutes. The newspapers were quick to use the word 'tragedy'... But what I had seen in the theatre made a more lastingly profound impression on me. The Bacchae of Euripides had been translated - or adapted - by the great African playwright Wole Soyinke, and had a chorus of semi-naked and wild dancing women (which made a predictably intense impression on an adolescent boy). The set of the Old Vic was hung with huge scarlet clotiis up into the flies, and at the moment when Dionysus calls for the destruction of Pentiieus' palace, the cloths fell to the ground revealing the theatre's bare bones behind. The play was overwhelming in its sensuous and physical intensity.

I was ripe to be hooked. I was just entering the classical sixth form at school. I had two great loves (mixed in with all those adolescent fantasies and longings). First the theatre: that year I saw every play that opened in London, usually standing at the back with a student ticket. That meant at least one play a week, and some pretty run down venues. I hung around the Young Vic and the Royal Court Upstairs; I acted at school; my English teacher, a gentle and inspiring man, would often say ‘Does anyone want a ticket for the Old Vic on Saturday? I have a couple of spares’. Oh for the days without risk assessments ... I drove with friends to Stratford and saw the full repertoire (and waited excitedly in the pub for a sight of Derek Jacobi and the unbearably glamorous casts). There are few cities like London that can provide such an education in theatre.

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