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Review Educational Theatre: Once Upon a Time, Greek Theatre

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Rare and Fair

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The Alliance Francaise of Durban is the heart of cultural activities with a francophone twist, hosting music, films, poetry, events and theatre on a regular basis. A play about Greek Theatre geared to learners is in itself an unusual occasion and the image on the poster was enticingly interesting. But nothing prepared me for the richness of the theatrical experience offered by consummate actress Sylvie Esperance….

The trick with good theatre, especially when aimed at a younger audience, is to engage immediately and then hold the attention through a series of unexpected surprises. It’s a technique used by theatre practitioners who care about the quality of attention their audiences afford them. The body of work covered in the ambitious production ‘Once Upon a Time … Greek Theatre’ is enormous and the scope of the work both wide and deep. Yet, it was made both exciting and palatable by the variety of theatrical devises employed as well as the extraordinary gift of the actress.

Visually, the image of Sylvie Esperance’s arrival on stage was enough to make the little audience gasp. Her head crowned with a padded and embroidered headdress, her slender neck clasped by a neck-plate, her bosom under-held by a tooled leather corset, sleeves ballooning from the shoulders, her face whitened and her lips reddened: all this would have been sufficient to attract. But, she also balanced a theatre on her hips, with crimson curtains forming a skirt and the whole affair looking like an outlandish yet attractive ball gown.

Sylvie’s voice is honed and trained and capable of sufficient range to play a company of characters.  She hosted the unveiling of the secrets of Greek Theatre in the guise of Dionysius’ companion Semele and unpacked the geography and history of the country, the roots of theatre, the rites and revels, comedy and tragedy, the mysteries and mythologies and  the social and political context  in a seamless flow. To accommodate members of the audience who would not understand her rapid French and her even more rapid Creole, there were subtitles in English and she also incorporated spoken English where necessary.

Sylvie employed a number of core narrative devices, a real showcase of expertise and attention to artistic detail. Masks on small handled bats were whipped out of secret pockets, a little tambourine was extracted from her hairdo to accompany a song and exquisitely made hand puppets were manipulated with appropriate and detailed movement, while she concealed her face with a black veil.  The curtains of the theatre were operated by a tug of a string revealing maps and floor plans in the guise of silken underskirts and hands and fingers were used as characters in a tragic expose of Greek family blood bathing.

Encouraging learners to familiarise themselves with the main myths and legends of Greece, a set of printed cards, each with the name and a brief description of a hero, heroine, god or monster were handed out one by one to members of the audience. A full hour had elapsed before Sylvie made her exit, and she had held a mixed language, mixed age audience enthralled. The power of good theatre as a means to entertain and educate was vindicated once again. Vive le theatre! 

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