Even the classics are problematic. How one Toronto theatre company remixed Euripides for 2019

Playwright Jeff Ho (Ho Ka Kei) on updating an ancient story with a timely theme: redemption and forgiveness.

Playwright Jeff Ho (Ho Ka Kei) on updating an ancient story with a timely theme: redemption and forgiveness

Virgilia Griffith in Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land). (Photo: Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Saga Collectif)

An adaptation of an ancient Greek comedy doesn't usually make me as giddy as a new Marvel movie would. (I didn't go to theatre school, and my knowledge of Greek classics is somewhat limited.) But Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) is the latest production from Toronto's Saga Collectif, a group of theatre artists who have produced some of the most powerful, poignant and memorable material that I've seen over the past few years. Written by Jeff Ho (Ho Ka Kei) and directed by Jonathan Seinen, the play is a modern, hilarious and very diverse twist on the classic text by Euripides.

But if you're like me and don't know the original, here are your Coles Notes (well, actually Parris Notes) on the dramatic world of the play. The backstory: Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, was setting sail for Troy when the goddess Artemis decided to mess with his plans. She'd taken control of the winds, and refused to stop unless Agamemnon killed his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. So, Agamenon brought Iphigenia to a sacrificial altar. But at the last moment, Artemis — that that twisted, tricky goddess — replacing the princess with an animal (I'm not sure how no one noticed that switch-a-roo) and taking her to the land of Taurians, where Iphigenia was made a priestess. (Her day gig was literally sacrificing people. Triggering much?)

Back home, Iphigenia's mother Clytemnestra was (understandably) upset with her husband, so she killed him (not so understandable). Then, their son Orestes killed her. (I'm telling you, the Red Wedding has nothing on this revenge spree.)

As punishment for killing his mom, Orestes was haunted by the Furies (three goddesses of vengeance) and was told by Apollo that the haunting would only come to an end if he completed a very specific mission: find Artemis (at Iphigenia's temple), steal a sacred statue of the goddess and bring it back to Athens. On the quest, Orestes and his sister Iphigenia are finally reunited — and that reunion is where the play picks up.

Given all the blood spilling and backstabbing, you might be surprised to learn that Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) is a comedy! (Even when they're comedies, Greek classics are never short on drama.)

The play is transformed through its contemporary language. (I love that Agamemnon is called "Daddy-Aggy" in the show.). It dives into the homoeroticism that's hinted at in the original, and also questions the colonial motivations that undergird much of the plot.

I saw the play earlier this week and left surprisingly moved, really appreciating its 2019 lens on homophobia, class and silencing. At the end of the play we are reminded that these stories are told over and over again and that we the audience are implicated in this question of why we keep choosing to watch and tell the same problematic narrative.

I spoke with playwright Jeff Ho about the role of classical theatre in today's critical and often cynical world.

Scene from Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land). (Photo: Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Saga Collectif)

I read that as a playwright you are obsessed with adaptations of Western classics. Where did this obsession come from?

Jeff Ho: I think it came from when I was a pianist from Hong Kong. Since I was five, the entire canon of music that I absorbed as a child through piano was Western. Chopin or Rachmaninoff or Beethoven — even to this day I can pull out a concerto from the Western canon immediately, but it takes time to even just think of a classical Chinese piece. And that's what it is. I don't judge it. That's what it is.

But going to the National Theatre School, we did a lot of classics. As an actor, [there was] this dream of going to Stratford or Shaw. It was only when I graduated did I realize, "Oh, I have an interest in writing new stories drawn from my own background, drawn from Hong Kong."

So tell me about Iphigenia and the Furies. What was the vision for this adaptation? What were you hoping to do?

JH: I had to find my way into that, actually. In the play, in the original, there is a gorgeous recognition scene between Orestes and Iphigeneia.

It's at the end of this whole family tragedy of the house of Atreus, and Euripides re-imagined this ending to be a happy ending that was ending this cycle of vengeance. And it was such a beautiful recognition scene — even Aristotle held it up to be the example of recognition scenes in all of Western drama.

So that was what Jonathan [the director] approached me with. He said, "I know that I want Virgilia [Griffith] to be Iphigenia. I know I want Tommy [Thomas] Olajide to be Orestes. And I want this beautiful, beautiful scene now, in this day and age."

There's a lot of heart. There's a lot of beauty in recognition scenes, in finally finding each other after so much pain, and the happiness to just see each other. But as I started adapting it, there were a lot of things [about the play] that may be a little skewed now for our 2019 worldview. Lines such as, "Women are so good at scheming," is something Orestes says multiple times in the original. And the entire play centralizes around Orestes travelling to Taurian land to steal a statue from these people — that they refer to as barbarian — and bring this statue back home to Athens so that he can be free from the Furies. It reeks of colonialism.

And so yes, there is this beautiful scene of family reuniting. But there's also all these problems. I started adapting, and at some point I just said, "I can't." I can't say this line, I can't write this colonial thing. [But] through the voice of the chorus, I found a way to sort of question that. Have the chorus confront them. Have the chorus centre themselves.

Virgilia Griffith and Thomas Olajide in Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land). (Photo: Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Saga Collectif)

Can you talk a little about the collaborative process?

JH: Absolutely. It feels so fundamental to the playwriting that I knew the cast coming in — who I was writing for. I knew the mandate of Saga Collectif to really question everything we do on stage and to highlight how things are moving, how things are shifting, how to represent more stories and more colour, how to do theatre in full colour. And so we were always in conversation.

Ultimately it became this question of — what is it to actually be people of colour doing the classics, for me adapting it, for the performers performing these characters? More and more we're seeing diverse casts in classics, but oftentimes we ask is that colour blind casting or if that's colour conscious casting, and how do we investigate that? So this is our attempt.

What is the importance of doing this Greek classic comedy today?

JH: It's [a question] I work with every day because I'm obsessed. If I may talk about a different play that links to this, I'm adapting Antigone for Young People's Theatre. But that came way before Iphigenia.

I found a frame in Tiananmen Square and the umbrella protest in Hong Kong of 2015 and I situated Antigone in a Chinese world view. [But] I started questioning. "Oh, wait. Am I simply just retelling a Chinese story through these Greek names? Do I actually change anything? Am I actually disservicing this Tiananmen story, this story that's such a part of my life, my family? Or should I have just written an entirely different play?" That all led up to this.

Scene from Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land). (Photo: Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Saga Collectif)

So what about Iphigenia makes it something that you think is worthy to return to today?

JH: It is a story ultimately about redemption. Orestes has performed incredible acts of violence toward his own family members and so his journey for the statue is one of redemption.

We are living now in a time where a lot of injustices are being correlated and brought up, and a lot of people's lives are shifting and we're all becoming aware of it. Where's the space for redemption? Where's the space for forgiveness of self, of each other? So this story is just a little gesture toward redemption and forgiveness. [...] Otherwise we will just burn ourselves out into exhaustion.

What do you hope audiences will get out of it?

JH: I hope beyond everything that they have a good time. It is a comedy at the end of the day — it's not a Greek tragedy.

And even in the original by Euripides, it's really this genre-bending thing. The first scene starts off almost like a solo show and then it goes into this action sequence and it moves on into another sort of stand-up comedian sequence, into a confrontation. It's sort of like flipping through Netflix and being like, "Oh, I'm going to spend 15 minutes watching this stand-up routine [and then] something that'll make me cry."

Scene from Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land). (Photo: Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Saga Collectif)

Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land). Featuring Augusto Bitter, Virgilia Griffith, Thomas Olajide, P.J. Prudat. Written by Jeff Ho (Ho Ka Kei). Directed by Jonathan Seinen. Presented by Saga Collectif. To Jan. 20. Aki Studio, Toronto.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.