‘Persians’ in a new version by Kaite O’Reilly, Fair Acre Press. Cover photo of Gerald Tyler, John Rowley and Richard Huw Morgan by Farrows Creative from Mike Pearson’s production for National Theatre Wales.
Almost a decade on from its premiere on Ministry of Defence land in the Welsh Brecon Beacons, and eight years after winning the Ted Hughes Award for new works in poetry, my version of Aeschylus’s ‘Persians’ is finally published by independent publisher Fair Acre Press…. and I perhaps shouldn’t, but will state, I love everything about it. Yes, I’m biased, but it is a thing of beauty – from the striking cover, using my favourite image from Mike Pearson’s acclaimed National Theatre Wales production, to the texture and quality of the paper. I also loved liaising with editor and designer Nadia Kingsley on every aspect of the book, relishing the thought given to the layout, which had Nadia and I yo-yoing back and forth in discussion, aided and abetted by the brilliant Chris Kinsey.
Chris and Nadia were attentive readers, responding to my revisions as I transferred the verse drama from something to be experienced live and site-specifically, to a text to be read possibly silently and alone. The layout and structure has changed to suit this new manifestation, reverting more to the original dramaturgy, as opposed to the one I devised to fit the promenade aspect of Pearson’s production.
From the Introduction.
Persians by Aeschylus is the oldest extant verse drama in the Western canon. First presented at Athens’ City Dionysia Festival in 472 BCE, it recounts the Persian response to military defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480BCE.
Aeschylus: poet, philosopher, soldier-playwright, anti-warmonger, humanist. He chose to write about an astonishing, almost miraculous event, a David and Goliath of its day: the spectacular and relatively recent defeat of the marauding Persian Imperial force by the people of Athens. Aeschylus was an Athenian. He could have written a swaggering tale of victory, of the battle-prowess Greeks and their cunning and sacrifice to protect this early, emerging experiment in (a form of) democracy. He could have written a xenophobic pageant of blood-lust and warriors, filled with self-congratulatory jingoism and gloating over the dead. Instead – in my reading at least – he chose to write a powerful anti-war verse drama which painfully depicts the waste and agonies of conflict – what Wilfred Owen, another soldier-poet, called ‘the pity of war’ – written with fire and dignity from the point of view of the defeated.
Reviews and endorsements:
I am hugely grateful to Gillian Clarke, the former Bard of Wales (2008-16) and one of the judges of the Ted Hughes Award, for her enthusiasm towards my reworking of Aeschylus’s “Persians’. Her words grace the back cover:
“In her version of Europe’s oldest dramatic poem, a requiem to a nation’s dead in a reckless, fruitless war, Kaite O’Reilly chooses the iambic drumbeat of English blank verse, and a long-lined lyricism that befits an epic lament. The language is modern, the word-music timeless, the rhythms ring with echoes of Elizabethan drama. In this powerful translation, the three voices of the Chorus tell the tragic story in a breathless song of mourning that insists on being heard.” Gillian Clarke.
The book is currently out with reviewers, but Liz Jones has already critiqued the verse drama for New Welsh Review:
“Kaite O’Reilly’s powerful, emotionally charged text…. stands squarely on its own as a notable work of poetry…. There is no Henry IV rallying his troops, no deposed king in search of his horse, no heroism on the battlefield. Instead we have something more resonant; a reflective mediation on war’s aftermath; a dramatic study of loss, grief and defeat, voiced by a sorrowful chorus….Under the weight of grief, language itself breaks down into incoherent keening…. A haunting tragedy and a salutary reminder that all empires must eventually end, it is hardly surprising that Persians continues to resonate across the centuries. O’Reilly’s translation, written as it was when American troops were withdrawing from Iraq, anticipates the fall of the empire of our age; that of America (and by association, of Western hegemony). Written and performed during ‘a time of terror’, O’Reilly has overlaid Aeschylus’ timeless tragedy with a distinctively contemporary howl of pain.”
Liz Jones. New Welsh Review. NWR issue r31. Full review here.
‘Persians’ will be published by Fair Acre Press on 29th July 2019, but advance copies can be ordered from the publisher here. It will also be available via Amazon, online, and all good bookshops from the publication date.
Launch and workshop:
I will be launching Persians in Cardigan at Small World Theatre on 7th September, following a workshop on adapting ancient texts:
Singing the old bones – new stories from ancient texts.
Revisiting older stories can be a masterclass in narrative. Myths, fairystories, epics from Ancient Greek drama and the oral tradition survive as they seem to speak to each age anew. These archetypal characters and narratives inspire and invite constant reinvention, yet the old bones remain true. In this practical workshop we will retell, remake and renew, participants exploring individual perspectives on timeless themes, reshaping ancient tales to illuminate something contemporary. The tutor, Kaite, is a repeat re-teller, creating to date three very different performances on the story of Blodeuwedd from The Mabinogion, and a new version of Aeschylus’s Persians,the oldest verse drama in the Western tradition, which won The Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry.
We ask participants to come with a myth, fable, ancient drama or story, which we will use to explore the fundamentals of story making: theme, structure, setting, dialogue and character. Through examples of Kaite’s diverse approaches to reinventing existing texts, we will make our own, sparking a new cycle of telling and retellings, seeding work which could be developed further beyond the masterclass.
Workshop 2-5pm on 7th September 2019, £25.
Small World Theatre | Theatr Byd Bychan
Cardigan | Aberteifi, SA43 IJY
Numbers are limited and already almost sold out, but plans are afoot for a further workshop/event in November 2019 at the same venue.
After the workshop:
Launch of ‘Persians’ Kaite O’Reilly’s new version of Aeschylus’s classic verse drama. 6pm. Free entry.
Kaite will read from the verse drama and speak about the historical and contemporary contexts of this extraordinary text. There will be a book signing after the reading and launch.
There will be further readings and events celebrating Fair Acre Press’s publication of ‘Persians’. Details will follow. I’m simply ecstatic being able to reveal the cover and some of the details of this, my debut poetry publication, which has taken so many years to reach print. Thanks to my fantastic agents at Blake Friedmann, Gillian Clarke, Chris Kinsey and to Nadia Kingsley of Fair Acre Press. What a beautiful collaboration!