Tag Archives: ancient greek theatre

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: https://www.limelight-arts-travel.com.au/lectures

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.