The Alexandrian Society are currently performing their winter play Electra, and we were lucky enough to sit down with the directors/writers, Hirushi Wickramaratne and Claire Breen to discuss it.
You are both on the committee for the Alexandrian Society – tell me a little about that. How did you get involved in it? What’s your favourite thing about being involved?
Hirushi: I got into the society when I was a first year. I was a bit quiet and didn’t really talk to people until I auditioned for the play that year (OkCupid – it was about couples counselling). I played the assistant and I basically started making real friends in the society and enjoying it more. When the Secretary position came up, I thought to apply and was shocked that I got it. I stayed in that position for two years and applied to be President at the end of third year, when I felt ready. It’s been a long time on the board but it’s been amazing. My favourite part is definitely the drama of my games nights. Everyone hates me on those nights because I perform them in such a dramatic fashion.
Claire: I joined the society, officially, half-way through first year. I was dipping in and out of there events in the first semester but was ultimately so shy that I didn’t go consistently. Hirushi actually was the one who told me about it, because we sat together in our Italian language class by chance. I knew I already had one friend there but, as an 18 year old out of high-school, I wasn’t really sure how to make friends because I’d just had my school friends for most of my life. I eventually just became accustomed to feeling a bit shy and managed to make friends within the society and this gave me enough confidence to apply for the position of ordinary board member, which I loved. I did lots of little tasks to help out the other members of the board, for example we canvassed at the stalls in freshers’ week which was a lot of fun. Then, this year I moved onto secretary at Hirushi’s recommendation. My favourite part about being involved is just seeing everyone enjoying our events and making friends.
Why did you choose Electra in particular?
Hirushi: I studied Electra when I did my A Levels. We did 4 texts, Medea, Antigone, Agamemnon, and Electra. These are all examples of ‘high’, traditional tragedy, except Electra which seemed to have been mocking Aeschylus and Homer. I also found it weird how Electra and Orestes aren’t powerful and stereotypical tragic heroes (like Medea, Creon, Antigone etc.), but they were a tad wet. My approach to the play was “this play’s a joke”, and I wanted to play on the joke already existing in Euripides. Last semester I did Natalia’s ‘Interpreting Tragedy’ course which approached various tragedies using literary critical theories, and it made me even more criticial of Euripides’ patterns. I wanted to exaggerate them and make them funnier.
Claire: It was actually Hirushi who put forward the idea of Electra. I had studied it previously and naturally was on board because it’s a great piece! I think I was so happy to do Electra because Hirushi had given it such thought and we knew exactly the way we wanted our characters to be, which made it really fun because from the get-go we were already full of creative and fun ideas.
How did you go about adapting it from the original play? What was the most difficult aspect to overcome?
Hirushi: We planned it out for quite a while. I first pitched it to James Warburton [President at the time] and Claire as a suggestion in January. I just kept working on it with Claire with what we wanted to change over the next few months and I wrote it in 4 days at the end of May. I found it difficult to balance how much of the original we wanted to keep and how much new (comedic) aspects we wanted to add. Eventually we found a balance and I’m glad we kept what we did keep from Euripides’ original.
Claire: When Hirushi pitched it to me, I wasn’t sure what we were going to do in regard to originality. It was a process of little additions here and there for a few months before Hirushi drafted it up in May. After that, any little bits we added were during the rehearsals, or just when we were reading the script and we’d think like, “oh, it would be funny if in this scene XYZ happened”. I think we kept a good amount from Euripides’ original, which I like.
Classics is often thought of as ‘elitist’, but your play is very accessible and funny, especially for those who have never studied Classics before. Was this one of your main aims? How did you go about this?
Hirushi: Thank you, that’s super kind of you. We definitely wanted to make it accessible. Tania, who plays Electra, has very little (no) classical education and she found herself falling in love with Classics from coming to our events last year and working on last year’s Spring Play Dr Sisyphus and His Ancient Patients. We just wanted to make the ancient references simple to understand and, if there was something that was harder to understand, Euripides was acting as someone who’d explain the joke. This made our jobs easier and meant Classics could be more accessible.
Claire: We definitely wanted this play to be enjoyable for everyone. Especially since we knew our friends and families would want to come along and support us, even if they didn’t do Classics. I really appreciated that aspect. I’d hate to think we fell into that ‘elitist’ category because I certainly don’t know everything there is to know. I think by avoiding that, we also gave ourselves more comedic freedom because we could change things that perhaps people wouldn’t get and make them into jokes.
You’ve made some interesting decisions with some of the characters, for example making Orestes’ and Pylades’ romantic relationship explicit. What inspired you to make these choices?
Hirushi: Gay rights! So, I studied Euripides’ Orestes last semester with Natalia and in it, Pylades actually has lines. Can you believe it? The way his lines were written gave me such romantic vibes and I loved it. I went to see the Guildhall School’s adaptation [https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2019/event/orestes-a-radical-reworking-of-euripides-at-guildhall] of it which was the best adaptation of a tragedy I have ever seen, and it reinforced my romantic interpretation of their relationship. When I was writing the play, I actually wasn’t sure how explicit I wanted their relationship but I was writing it at the same time as Eastenders started their Ballum storyline. I remember being like, “this plotline is going to take ages for them to actually consummate their affair and frustrate me for being so slow burning” (turns out it took them a week to shag and about 3 months to become a couple. Not bad!) and realising that the play should have good representation by having explicitly gay characters.
I also wanted to make sure that we had a good representation. Media focuses way more on gay men than women. Up until quite recently, it’s been really hard for me to see myself represented. (Bisexual and desi Asian. See: Ash in Eastenders). That’s why I wanted Chrysothemis [Orestes and Electra’s sister] to also be gay. The joke relationship is Electra and The Farmer’s heterosexual daddy kink relationship, not Orestes and Pylades’ genuine love relationship, or Chrysothemis and Creusa’s relationship.
I don’t know if you noticed, but there is two cheek kisses (Electra and The Farmer) and two real kisses (Orestes and Pylades). I wanted to have a main gay couple show intimacy and love that’s only really afforded to straight couples. It’s my way of redressing the balance.
Claire: I love that couple! When Hirushi pitched to me that they would be in a relationship, I thought it was brilliant. We really wanted to make it as loving as possible between them, and I think they pulled off the chemistry well! I’m grateful that we’ve been inclusive in that regard, because representation is super important! I also really love that Chrysothemis is gay and is portrayed in a non-sexualised way which I think often happens in the media. She’s just living her best life with her priestess girlfriend!
In hindsight, was there anything you wish you had done differently with the play?
Hirushi: Honestly, not really. The vision we had was fulfilled pretty much perfectly. I guess if we had a Thursday and Friday slot, rather than Tuesday, that would be better. No one goes to plays on a Tuesday.
Claire: I don’t think so. We worked really closely on it and our cast worked really hard. I’m so happy with what we’ve done. We really didn’t have many issues throughout production and I think it’s because we all had such a good relationship that we could work together to solve any problems.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to know more about Classics?
Hirushi: As the President of the Alexandrian Society, I’d recommend coming to our events as we do cater to both people who know lots about Classics but also people who know nothing. That’s really where to start. Also, everyone I know from school with an interest in Classics started out with the Percy Jackson books. Funnily enough, I didn’t. I started studying Classics at GCSE because my teacher said Classics is good if you want to do a Politics degree (back in the days when I wanted to do a Politics degree) and it was a month in that my best friend, Hannah, forced me to read Pery Jackson. That series changed my life and I will always say it’s the best place to start. Rick Riordan explains so many complex aspects of mythology in such an accessible way and it’s super obvious he’s actually done his research (unlike the films, but like the musical). They’re aimed at kids but don’t feel condescending at all when you’re reading as an adult, which is a rare for children’s literature. Also, there is great representation of people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community. I remember Nico’s coming out story being released just before I started to come out. It was a lifesaver for 15 y/o me.
Claire: I would definitely recommend our society events! I don’t really know how I got into Classics, it stemmed from doing Latin at school and then I did it during sixth year and I decided that’s what I wanted to dedicate the next four years too. I guess you could start with Percy Jackson, like Hirushi said. There’s also lots of documentaries and stuff online that you could watch as a stepping stone into actually studying it. Either way, it’s great fun and super interesting, so I’d recommend it.
If you were throwing a dinner party and could invite three classical characters/historical figures, who would it be and why?
Hirushi: Definitely Cleopatra. She would bring a great house gift cause she’s so rich and I bet she has great stories about the people in her life. I’d love Helen of Troy. As a youngster, I hated her cause internalised misogyny and the (non-Homeric) Classical sources on her constantly slutshaming her and blaming her for Paris’ actions. Now, I admire her for being the true monarch of Sparta (not her husband nor her brothers, as she inherited the throne from her (step-)father Tyndareus) and I bet she has interesting stories too. Plus I do lowkey headcanon her as sapphic. Speaking of being sapphic, I would have to invite Sappho too. Her poetry is excellent and we stan one lesbian icon.
Claire: Diogenes! Absolutely Diogenes! He’s hilarious. I’ve always found his antics funny and I feel like he’d be a good laugh, if not a bit of a crude guest. I think I would also invite Cleopatra, because she’s exceptionally interesting. I’d have some questions for her and I imagine she would be happy to set the record straight on a few things. I feel like she’d probably be less than impressed with my flat, however, considering what she’s used to. I’d also invite Hector. I’ve always had a soft spot for him. I feel like he’d be really polite and probably have good chat. Unproblematic king. (sorry Patroclus!)
Catch Electra on Thrusday 5th December at 7pm in the GUU Debates Chamber. Tickets are £5 for students and £7 for non-students and can be bought on the door. Read our review of the play here.
The Alexandarian Society runs every Thursday at 5pm in 65 Oakfield Avenue in the Murray Room.
[Eleanor Fletcher – she/her – @eleanorlf_]