Thursday, 1 July 2010

Euripides; The Bacchae - Part I

This would be incredibly picture heavy if I did it in one post, so I'll spread this over several. This year, in May (on the 4th and 5th, to be precise) the Classics students (and a few students from other departments) put on a production of Euripides' Bacchae. I was co-producer and artistic director and one of the things I insisted right from the start is that there would be masks. Masks are usually shunned in drama, which to me, as a great lover of Venetian masks, is a shame as it closes up whole avenues that could be explored in addressing questions of identity, emotion and how we portray who we are. All, it seems, because some actor had a tantrum about having to wear a hot and restricting mask. It was amusing really because when we started people really weren't keen on the idea - the co-directors expressed concern frequently before I'd even shown them designs for the masks, telling me the actors (who'd also not seen the designs) weren't happy and were worried about using them, etc. But I quietly stuck my heels on over this one and ignored their complaints (how can you even complain without having seen them, or even asked to see the designs, anyway?) When the actors first saw the masks they loved them. Most of them kept them after the production. And several people told me afterwards that the masks were one of the great successes of the play. I suspect I rather radiated smugness.

For me it was a great opportunity - to be involved in the production of an ancient play, and a chance to experiment with how to make Venetian masks - and because it was part of the production, I got to experiment for free. So the clay, plaster of paris, etc. cost me nothing. Brilliant.

As you might have guessed from that short paragraph, I did this "properly" I made a clay face then made a negative cast of that face using plaster of paris (actually, we made two - the second face was far better than the first). From those negative cast, I made all the masks.

This is the second of the two clay faces. we managed to get it a lot smoother than the first by gently rolling an 8-ball over it. I cheated a little with the lips as I just couldn't get them right. My housemate has a shop mannequin (long story) so I made a paper mache cast of her lips, then formed the clay lips from that. Not that the lips really mattered for the production as they had to be cut out on all the masks! But it gives me a chance to make full-face masks later.

So the masks were made out of paper mache, eyes cut out, chin & mouth cut off, shaped, then sanded to get them smooth...

Then painted with a base layer of acrylic - it's not white though it looks it in this picture - it's a more creamy colour. Then I added details, again in acrylic...

Finally, after painting they were varnished and then some gold detail was added. I actually wanted a crackle glaze effect with the varnish, so I looked up a load of sites and tutorials, bought a water based glaze and an oil based glaze and followed the instructions and... nothing. Not a single crack. I tried again with variations of how thick the applications of glaze should be, how long I should leave it between applications - I even switched which one I put on first, just in case everyone online had somehow got confused. Nothing. Not a single crack any time. Alas.

Anyway. This mask is Agave's. It was one of the more impressive masks, along with Dionysos and Chorus leader, and it was the one we used on the poster (mainly because we needed to get the posters sorted and this was the only one I'd finished that would make sense on a poster). The leaves are Ivy and vine, the plants of Dionysos. The flower on top worked pretty well because Agave spent a lot of time on the floor leaning over Pentheu's dead body, so the audience got a proper view of it, and a constant reminder (for those who knew the Ivy was the plant of Dionysos) of who was behind the tragedy.

The following mask is the guard's. I made a typical Spartan mask, partly because that's the kind of mask steretypically identified as Greek by non-classicists, and I wanted it to be obvious what his role was. But because that was the point I was making, I deliberately aged it and made it looked like a corroded relic, feeling that was probably the look more people would be familiar with. Hopefully at least some questioned why his mask was the way it was.

It also gave me a chance to give him the Leonidas look, which amused me if no one else and finally, in my mind it made an amusing contrast to the rest of his outfit, which was that of a British Queens Guard soldier. The contrast just added an extra element of weird which suits the play as I always feel like it, and many other tragedies should be/are entirely pervaded by the sense that something is very wrong.

More photos to follow...

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