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Theatre's lasted for millennia - that's the gift of the Greeks

The Covid-19 hiatus will be seen as just a tiny blip on the epic theatrical timeline, writes Katy Hayes

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Success story: Oscar Butler and Jude Lynch in Medea at The Gate, Dublin in February. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Success story: Oscar Butler and Jude Lynch in Medea at The Gate, Dublin in February. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Success story: Oscar Butler and Jude Lynch in Medea at The Gate, Dublin in February. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

It is difficult for theatre lovers to contemplate the future. With the challenges to audience capacity posed by social distancing, the problems faced by producers in ­making detailed plans with the threat of a second wave of infection once winter hits, and the theatre box office having been silent for months, it is hard to be optimistic.

Joseph Haj, artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis (Irish director Joe Dowling's successor in the post, first held by Irishman Tyrone Guthrie) recently addressed the fears of the theatre community from his Covid-shuttered venue. Haj made reference to the enduring remains of the Theatre of Dionysus on the southern slopes of the Acropolis. This was where the plays of Aeschylus, of Euripides, of Sophocles et al were staged in the 5th century BC: "What we do on our stages today is exactly what was done 2,500 years ago." In this way, Haj signalled the enduring power of the theatrical form and encourages us to believe our current difficulties are just a temporary blip in the sprawling annals of time.

The dramatists of classical Greece have been providing comfort and inspiration to the Irish theatre since the Revival. William Butler Yeats wrote versions of Sophocles' King Oedipus (1926) and Oedipus at Colonus (1927) for the Abbey, presenting idiomatic versions that were easily intelligible to a general Irish audience. His was the first great harnessing of the epic ambitions of Greek theatre to the Irish national narrative.