Artful Blogger: Greeks, Gladiators, and Up To Low
Artful Musing

Artful Blogger: Greeks, Gladiators, and Up To Low

There is really no experience like getting up close to Alexander the Great and staring at him mano a mano. This will be possible come June 5 when the exhibition, The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great, opens at the Canadian Museum of History.

The exhibition arrives in Gatineau after a winter-long run at Pointe-a-Calliere Museum in Montreal. That’s where I saw the show and spent a few minutes communing with Alexander, or at least a life-sized sculpture of his head that was created during the great warrior’s lifetime, 356-323 BCE.

The marble head appears to have been carved shortly after Alexander became king of Macedonia at age 20, succeeding his father, Philip II. The face is young and untroubled, except for a missing nose that got knocked off sometime in the last few thousand years. Even without a nose, young Alexander is handsome, apparently ready to go out and conquer lands stretching from Greece, south to Egypt, and eastward to India.

Alexander did all that by age 30. What did you accomplish by age 30? Maybe a university degree, a mortgage, a troubled marriage, and one ungrateful child?

A teenaged Alexander was tutored by none other than Aristotle. Maybe that’s how he got the smarts to conquer Egypt, Persia, Asia Minor, etc., and not just to nab a semi-detached in Kanata that will take 35 years to own.

The gold mask from Mycenae, often referred to as the “Death Mask of Agamemnon”. Photo: © Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs

The exhibition, at least as it was in Montreal, contains many fabulous gems, some of them never before seen outside Greece. There’s a series of sculpted heads from The Parthenon on The Acropolis, oodles of gold jewellery and some paper-thin gold death masks, pottery decorated with painted scenes of Greek warriors, life-sized marble statues, and bronze swords and spearheads  — artifacts covering 5,000 years of history.

The sculpted heads include those of Sophocles, the playwright, and Aristotle, the philosopher — two great minds that continue to shape our culture. We learn about Achilles, the almost invincible who was slain during the siege of Troy, and Homer, who immortalized in literature so many Greeks, both real and mythological.

All together, there are 500 artifacts in the exhibition. The works come from 21 Greek museums and are part of a plan by the Greek government to drum up tourism to their financially troubled country. The exhibition continues at the Canadian Museum of History until Oct. 12.

The History museum will be showing the same artifacts as were exhibited in Montreal. “However, we will have a significantly different presentation (given that we have a lot of more physical space),” says Stephanie Verner, a spokeswoman for the Gatineau museum. “We are also focusing much more heavily on the people, special objects, and events that are woven into the exhibition. We are building dozens of special displays (both cases and architectural features) that will help the visitor better connect with Greek history.”

Death and Glory
Another swords-and-sandals exhibition opens at the Canadian War Museum June 13. If you enjoyed the Russell Crowe film Gladiators or the far older Kirk Douglas classic Spartacus, chances are you will also enjoy the exhibition Gladiators and the Colosseum – Death and Glory.

The exhibition was developed by the Italian firms Contemporanea Progretti and Expona and comes with actual pieces of the Colosseum, weapons, armour, sculptures, and other gladiator brick-a-brac — some of it genuine and some reproductions.

The first Roman gladiator games were held in 310 BCE. Six hundred years later, the bloodthirsty fight-to-the-death games ended. They were getting too expensive and Christianity, which shunned the games, was on the rise.

Of course, this was long before the UFC circuit was formed in North America in which modern-day gladiators fight one another, almost to the death.

The gladiator exhibition is a rather unusual pop culture extravaganza for the war museum, which tends to concentrate, in a serious, scholarly way, on Canada’s involvement in military conflicts. Is the war museum really the place for an exhibition on gladiators?

The exhibition will continue until Sept. 7.

Up To Low
It’s an all-Ottawa theatrical dream team, starting with a much loved children’s novel, Up to Low, by Brian Doyle. Then, veteran director Janet Irwin adapts the play for the stage. Ian Tamblyn takes charge of the music. The cast includes such Ottawa pros as Pierre Brault and Paul Rainville. What could go wrong?

Lots, apparently. The first act is the most problematic. There is simply too much talking, singing, leaping and scurrying simultaneously on the crowded stage as 12-year-old Tommy, his father, and his father’s drunken friend, Frank, prepare for a trip to a cottage and a neighbourhood of eccentrics along the Gatineau River near Low in 1950. It all becomes just noise at times.

Then there are the sturdy wooden chairs which, most tiresomely, become cumbersome all-season props. (Note to director: Waving these chairs in the air does not make for convincing birds.)

The second, uncluttered act is better. It is spooky, silly, romantic, and cathartic – just like Doyle’s novel intended the story to be. Brault’s portrayal of Hummer, a Gatineau Valley witch doctor of sorts, was brilliant. Likewise is Rainville as the villainous Mean Hughie.

Up To Low deals with many weighty topics, including alcoholism, domestic abuse, cancer, the disabled, post-traumatic stress disorder and, above all, the power of forgiveness. The novel was written for children, so all the lessons come with huge dollops of corn-pone humour geared to young minds.

up to low 2
A scene from Up to Low, a play adapted from a book by Brian T. Doyle, being presented at Arts Court Theatre from May 23 to June 6. Left to right, back row: Megan Carty, Doreen Taylor-Claxton, Paul Rainville, Kristina Watt. Front row: Chris Ralph, Attila Clemann. Photo: Sarah Hoy

Today, the story — at least as adapted by Irwin — appears terribly dated, appealing more to nostalgic seniors than to children ready to learn some valuable life lessons. In our current politically correct society, men who abuse alcohol or beat their wives are no longer seen as comedic characters. Their attitudes and actions are more tragic than funny.

Up to Low continues at Arts Court Theatre until June 6. For tickets and information, visit here. The play is produced by Easy Street Productions and The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, in association with Magnetic North Theatre Festival.

In case you would like to do your own drive up to Low, be sure to stop at the Farrellton Artists’ Space just off Route 105 between Wakefield and Low. The building at 42 chemin Plunkett in the hamlet of Farrellton, is a sprawling old school turned into maze of artists’ studios for the likes of John Barkley, Kathryn Drysdale, Maureen Marcotte, David McKenzie, Stefan Thompson and many others.

There will be an open house June 11 at 7 p.m. and again June 14, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The atmosphere is similar to that of the annual open house held at Enriched Bread Artists studios in central Ottawa, except that the Farrellton location is in a pleasant, bucolic location. The drive (almost) up to Low is half the fun.