Monthly Archives: October 2022

A Resonating Journey through Ancient Theatre – Dr Craig Barker

What does the Sydney Opera House and ancient Roman theatre have in common? Apart from raised seats, a stage … it’s the acoustics.

As part of its recent refurbishment, Sydney Opera House also enhanced the acoustics in the concert hall. Now, the curvature behind the orchestra and stalls is covered by rippled wave-walls of brush box. Hovering above the orchestra are magenta fiberglass sound petals, or reflectors, replacing the floating amber rings or donuts (or toilet seats) that many patrons affectionately called them.

Zooming in on the latest lecture in the limelight-arts-travel series Archaeology of The Ancient Theatre given by classical archaeologist Dr Craig Barker, it was an ‘ah ha’ moment when Dr Barker spoke of the ancient Roman technology of using bronze rings to enhance the acoustics in their vast, open-air, tiered theatres.

Acoustic rings in the Sydney Opera House pre-refurbishment
Post refurbishment – the new sound reflectors
The rippled wall of brush box in the Concert Hall of Sydney Opera House

Whether you’ve been to Pompei, Rome, Athens et al, you’re bound to have been overwhelmed by the archaeology of ancient theatre. During my own travels around the Mediterranean, ancient theatres have always fascinated. To stand on their stages, to climb their vertiginous rows of limestone seating, now often cracked with weeds, and to imagine a time BC when plays were starting up, when whole populations would come to the outer edges of the city to be entertained … it’s pretty special.

While in southern Sicily on the outskirts of Syracuse and while spending hours trawling the Archaeological Park in the ancient suburb of Neapolis it was a sense of time-travel to find, not only the crescent ruins of a Greek theatre cut into the hill, but nearby on the same slope of rocky outcrop, a Roman amphitheatre, albeit weed-wracked, with its rectangular central pit still visible.

Greek Theatre at Syracuse
Roman Amphitheatre at Syracuse

Dr Barker shed light on the differences of the odeon, theatre and amphitheatre. As a child I remember going to the Odeon in Eastwood and rolling my Jaffas down the aisle; little did I understand the name’s connection to the odeons of ancient times.

Another fascinating aspect of ancient Greek theatre was the concept of the Choregia­ – wealthy Athenian citizens who assumed the public duty of financing much of the production not covered by the government. These ‘patrons’ paid for the musicians, costumes, rehearsals, props including the elaborate masks, special effects, scenery, as well as the expenses of the chorus (training, salaries, board and lodging during the lengthy rehearsal periods). Notable figures serving as choregoi included Pericles and Plato. Monuments were built in their honour.

You can see a carved sandstone replica of the Choragic Monument of Lysikrates (Athens 334BC) today in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney close to the Farm Cove seawall. It was commissioned in 1870, by the then Premier of NSW – Sir James Martin, whose own statue to celebrate his astonishing life has recently appeared in Martin Place in the city’s CBD.

Choragic Monument of Lysikrates in Athens
Statue of Sir James Martin as a schoolboy (Martin Place, Sydney)

Tragedy. Comedy. Satyr (not Satire). The role of Dionysos. Vases. Terracotta figurines. Wall paintings. Mosaics. It is commendable how much knowledge was shared during Dr Barker’s one-hour lecture that layered the intriguing story of ancient drama. But be warned. Too much wine may take you to the happy place of ecstasy, but it can also be a dangerous place that you may never come back from. And once you don that mask for the stage, your character becomes a hypocrite in its Dionysian spirit of transference.

A slide from Dr Barker’s presentation
Dr Craig Barker explaining the images on the vase
Part of my own collection of Venetian masks including Comedy and Tragedy

Thanks to Dr Craig Barker, Director of the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project in Cyprus and lecturer and head of public engagement at the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum.

For remaining lectures in the series see:

There’s also a complimentary lecture on Monday 31st October on The Sistine Chapel given by Dr Nick Gordon. You have to register to access it.

A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Florence as enlightened by Professor Emerita Nerida Newbigin

The second lecture in the limelight-arts-travel series is a time-travel through Nerida Newbigin’s expertise into the Renaissance world of Florence where mystery and miracle plays, and processions, were de rigueur.

One of my first acquaintances with Florence came so many years ago when reading one of my now favourite books, E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View.

Set in England’s Edwardian era in the wake of The Grand Tour, Miss Lucy Honeychurch travels to Florence for cultural enlightenment where she meets the gorgeous, but lower-class George Emerson, who is searching for life’s hope and meaning.

At one point George says, ‘… you are NOT to look at your Baedeker. Give it to me … we shall simply drift.’ And further into their drifting exploration, ‘The well-known world had broken up, and there emerged Florence, a magic city where people thought and did the most extraordinary things.’

Founded in 59BC as a settlement for Julius Caesar’s former soldiers, the city name was Colonia Florentia, meaning flowering colony. How apt was that to become when during the Renaissance creative experimentation was flourishing.

One of my own hand-painted cards bought while in Florence

Even after my own explorations of Florence and the nearby hill town of Fiesole, where during the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci used its slopes as a launching pad for his flying machines, I was enriched by the layering of Nerida Newbigin’s lecture.

Florence at the time was the city of creatives: the Medici family, Petrarch, Giotto, Dante, da Vinci, Brunelleschi and Machiavelli et al. It was the centre of drama where performance spaces included barges on the river Arno, churches, piazzas and cloisters.

Nerida Newbigin enlightening us about Machiavelli

Public and private performances were everywhere. Many of the paintings and frescoes seen today reflect these experiences.

Florence was the epicentre of the Renaissance: the blossoming of the arts, humanism, technology and scientific discoveries. All of which melded into the performance space.

Weddings were celebrated with liveried musicians where trumpeters were hired or poached from visiting princes. Professional poets – canterini – accompanying themselves on violas would sing of saints and battles.

Feast days (like today in Italy) were scenes of great entertainment for the people. Churches had extensive ‘stage’ equipment built into their domes where Christ or the Virgin Mary would ascend into the heavens. Children from the orphanages dressed as angels and boy sopranos were given red stockings as payment for singing.  They can be seen in many of the church’s paintings.

From Nerida Newbigin’s slide show showing the hoist used for the Feast of the Annunciation

Haloes on the performers were packed with gunpowder – a dove was attached to a line with a light that would fly along the row of halos igniting them to represent the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. What a spectacle! That is until a fire in Santo Spirito burnt it to the ground.

It was a time of processions and horse racing and betting as part of the celebrations, as were processions of drummers and flag throwers – much like I saw recently in Siena.

Flag throwers and drummers in Siena

Art and pageantry evolved into performing troupes travelling from city to city in the form of the Commedia dell’arte.

My own collected postcards of Commedia dell’arte performers

This and so much more was gleaned through Nerida Newbigin’s extensive and richly-sourced lecture; a renaissance of its own in offering an awakening to those on the other side of the zoom screen.

And to once again look at Florence through the eyes of George Emerson in A Room with a View … ‘Italy … it gave her light, and – which he held more precious – it gave her shadow.’

  • This was the 2nd in the visual and performing arts lecture series with Limelight Arts Travel. You can subscribe to any within the series. Look out for archaeology; women composers and utopias.

Japan’s Renaissance: the Heian Period, as enlightened by Dr Kathleen Olive

What a cultural gift to have been given the opportunity to take part in limelight-arts-travel‘s online lecture series. The first of my chosen chats is one that delves into the cultural renaissance of Japan; a world away from the western-imagined Dark Ages that shadowed Europe at the time.

Cleansing ritual before entering the Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu
Cleansing ritual before entering the Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu

Haiku began in 13th century Japan reaching its peak in the 17th century. When I visited Japan, I found myself in the sacred forest of Kashima Jingu: 70 hectares of forests, ponds, shrines and a deer park with the deer’s lineage dating back to the ancient divine messengers of Nara.

While immersing myself in the balm of the forest (forest bathing), I wandered along a path studded with wooden posts engraved with haiku. Matsuo Basho, the master of Haiku, the (generally) 17-syllable poems that evoke the imagery of nature, was born into a samurai family. He visited this area in 1687. His poetry punctuates the forest.

My guide, Maeno, interprets the haiku for me: on the withered branch; crow crouching there; dusk in autumn
My guide, Maeno, interprets the haiku for me: on the withered branch; crow crouching there; dusk in autumn

As I discovered more of cultural Japan; the distinctive architecture of temples, pagodas and shrines, the function of writing, poetry, painting, fans and screens, Shintoism and Buddhism, all these concepts fell into place as I was immersed in Dr Kathleen Olive’s lecture on Japan’s Heian period of the 8th-12th centuries. While much of Europe was cast under our western idea of The Dark Ages, Japan was in its Renaissance where ideas in art, architecture, literature and ritual led to a new and unique Japanese culture.

The Heian Period of refinement did not include 80% of the population who were subsistence farmers. It was a movement that specifically indulged the elite – the bureaucrats and aristocrats. At the time, much cultural knowledge came from trading with China and the kingdoms of Korea.

Japan’s first official capital was Nara (southwest of Tokyo) with its Imperial Court. When the emperor gave permission to his court to experiment with Buddhism (a diplomatic gift from the ancient kingdoms of Korea), it wasn’t long before the emperor felt his power being challenged. Nara was deemed to be cursed and a new capital was sought.

The aristocratic architecture of Byōdō-in designed with its upturned eaves to look like a phoenix landing on water
The aristocratic architecture of Byōdō-in designed with its upturned eaves to look like a phoenix landing on water

Using Four Gods Topography – Geomancy – the site needed a river on the east, a highway on the west, dragon mountains to the north (as the physical threat of war would come from here) and lowlands to the south. A poetry competition was held to decide the name of the new city. Peace and Tranquillity won = Heian-kyō (Kyoto). This gave its name to the entire Heian Period of cultural renaissance in Japan, where the movement was not to look to China or the kingdoms of Korea, but to look within.

Dr Kathleen Olive explains the makings of the lacquer & gilded cosmetic box
Dr Kathleen Olive describes the makings of this maki-e lacquered, gilded and mother-of-pearl cosmetic box used by men and women

And so began the great development of new ideas in art, architecture, literature and ritual (including the multilayered & seasonally coloured kimono) that led to a new and ultimately unique Japanese culture – before the rise of the samurai class and before the settlement of Edo – Tokyo.

A kimono representing the 72 micro seasons

Dr Kathleen Olive in her talk along with her visuals, draws you in to this enigmatic era of change with her extensive love and knowledge of classical Japan.

  • This is the first in the visual and performing arts lecture series with Limelight Arts Travel. You can subscribe to any within the series.