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In the first of our "Scholarship for the Classroom" pieces, Caroline Bristow looks at how 2018's BAME Medea production in Oxford can be used as a piece of scholarship for A Level Classical Civilisation, and provides links to the resources and discussion surrounding it.

Three performers from the production BAME Medea

A still from the from the 2018 production of Medea at Keble College, Oxford.

In 2018 the O’Reilly Theater at Keble College Oxford hosted the University’s first all BAME production, an interpretation of Euripides’ Medea. Directed by Fran Amewudah-Rivers and co-produced by Shivaike Shah, the production “effectively capitalizes on Euripides' complex portrait of a foreigner in an unsympathetic land, producing a unique play which resonates powerfully in today's immigration-anxious global North” (Dr. Rosa Andujar).

In an interview for the APGRD Podcast with Avery Willis Hoffman – who herself selected Medea as Oxford’s Greek Play in 2002 –  Amewudah-Rivers and Shah discussed their reasons for the choice of Medea and the challenges they faced in realising their vision. When they first pitched the idea there was doubt whether there were even enough students of colour who would want to be involved (eighty people in fact auditioned for fifteen roles), and whether people would actually buy tickets (the run sold out). The play aimed to celebrate the cultural diversity of its forty strong cast and crew, and the creative process was one of collaboration, which aimed to unite these cultural contributions with one text and explore ideas of identity and difference.

In this podcast Amewudah-Rivers describes why she choose Medea: “… her story speaks to the contemporary setting and the ongoing fight for racial equality, she is considered to be a foreigner, she is considered to be barbaric and therefore she’s seen as a threat to the peace and prosperity of Corinth.” Amewudah-Rivers links this to the xenophobia and racism that so many still face today. Shah describes feeling a sense of “relief” from audience members of colour in seeing themselves represented, in contrast to the “suffocation” of a wider environment where they felt marginalised.

Medea is a set text for the OCR Classical Civilisation A Level, as part of the component The Invention of the Barbarian. The component lists the following content in relation to the study of Euripides’ Medea:

  • the plot, structure, characterisation and themes
  • the context in which the play was produced
  • how the plot and Medea’s character is formed by her ascribed status as a "barbarian"
  • how Medea’s actions may have been viewed by the audience

When this syllabus was designed, I was working at OCR and was lucky enough to have responsibility for the creation of the new Classical Civilisation qualifications. I wanted to create courses which reflected what teachers and students loved about the subject, but also made use of modern thinking and captured the diversity of Classics as a discipline. There were a couple of components which were especially close to my heart and with which I was particularly involved, Invention of the Barbarian being one. When I first conceived of this component and its content, I envisaged it being used not only to discuss the way in which the Greeks characterised “others”, but to explore how modern prejudice and stereotypes still imbue our view of those we perceive as being “different”. The content compares the Greek depictions of the Persians with evidence we have of the Persians themselves, and also looks at the way the Greeks constructed images of terrifying, very much female, "barbarism" in the Amazons and Medea.

The “scholarship” element of Classical Civilisation is interpreted very broadly by the specification and its examiners. Not only is it important to remember that this term includes the reception of classical works, it also does not only mean “articles” or even “lectures”; it can also refer to artistic interpretation. Examiners’ reports from 2019 express enthusiasm for reading candidates’ references to performances of the plays they had studied, either live or as recordings. When studying a play like Medea, one of the most powerful and memorable forms of scholarship that can be used with students is the artistic vision of the cast and crew of a modern production. The BAME Medea is an excellent resource for use in the classroom due to the extensive free, online materials. The entire play is available to watch on YouTube, as are interviews with those involved about Medea as a character and also the production itself. Dr. Andujar’s review is also a source of accessible and clear scholarship about the play, from which easily digested quotes and ideas can be drawn. The team is currently in the early stages of bringing the show to the London stage, supported by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities). The webpage for the project contains updates, resources and information.

The ability to watch an entire performance of the play online is an invaluable way of helping students to access the text, especially for those who may struggle to follow the action from the written word alone. The way in which Amewudah-Rivers centres her interpretation on the themes of otherness and foreignness works well with bullet point three of the specification (listed above). The following could also be highlighted to students and deployed effectively in essays.

  • Amewudah-Rivers uses the Chorus as “an extension of Medea’s personality” and through use of movement, poetry and live music, conveys a sense of otherness in ways other than simple use of language.
  • The complex and striking white makeup designed by Shah (visible in the picture above) was deeply infused with the different cultural heritages of the three artists who created it, tapping into the importance of identity in the play as well as reflecting the diverse cultural heritage of the cast and crew.
  • Dr. Andujar’s description of Euripides’ creation of this “complex portrait of a foreigner” and Amewudah-Rivers’ explanation of Medea’s resonance with the modern fight for racial equality and societal tensions around racial identity could perhaps be discussed in the context of Medea’s creation amidst the fear of the "barbaric" Persian threat.
  • The very fact that Amewudah-Rivers chose Medea as the vehicle for her vision of an all BAME artistic statement demonstrates its great power as a work exploring themes of identity, foreignness and the social isolation of those considered “different”.

Remember when teaching any form of scholarship that the guidance from examiners is that they want to see critical engagement: do students agree with the thinking? Why? A modern production is an excellent and accessible resource for embedding these critical skills. Ask students if they feel the message is well conveyed, if they can see how the production works with the themes of Euripides’ work, and even simply (possibly most importantly) if they enjoyed the performance!

Engaging with scholarship does not have to mean reading a book and deconstructing an argument; it can be discussing a personal response to an artistic interpretation. With its unique and powerful vision, the BAME Medea is sure to spark conversation in your classroom. The piece is beautifully placed to help students explore themes of foreignness and identity key both to the Medea itself and also this module of the Classical Civilisation A Level. For those teaching Medea in other contexts, examining the play through the lens of modern BAME representation is no less valuable. In centering the scholarship and artistry of these individuals, their work is amplified and its importance acknowledged. It can also impact students who themselves may be feeling marginalised or underrepresented, and provide inspiration for the next generation of innovative artists and scholars.

Image credit: 

Khameleon Productions

About the author 

I am the current Director of the Cambridge School Classics Project and have been involved in outreach work, especially in terms of access to Classics and to Higher Education, since my time as an undergraduate and then postgraduate student at Oxford University where I read Ancient and Modern History. Previous to this I was the Classics and Religious Studies Subject Specialist at the exam board OCR (part of Cambridge Assessment). I have taught a variety of subjects in the UK state sector at GCSE, AS and A Level, including Classical Civilisation, Classical Greek, Religious Studies, Philosophy and Anthropology. Each summer I teach on the JSST Repton Summer School, to get a small 'fix' of classroom time.

Caroline Bristow