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Creation Holiday Theatre Workshop Presentation at the Ashmolean- Anthony and Cleopatra

26 August 16 -- Anonymous
Egyptian images
Written by Claire Frampton, Visitor Services Assistant at the Ashmolean Museum

As part of their Put on a Play in a Week summer holiday offer, Creation Theatre produced a presentation of scenes of the Shakespeare play Anthony and Cleopatra in the Cast Gallery at the Ashmolean in August 2016. This was following on from the success of the production drawing inspiration from The Labours of Hercules produced in the summer of 2015. The emphasis was on learning through drama and learning with objects in a museum setting.  

I designed the Hercules project as an assignment in 2012 while I was taking the MA Arts Policy and Management at Birkbeck College, University of London, taking modules in heritage management. At the same time I was working as a Visitor Services Assistant at the Ashmolean, and made it happen as part of my certificate to become an Associate of the Museums Association in 2015 and as part of my development during my role as VSA. 

At the beginning of the week the students had an introduction to working in the museum. With the Hercules project it was designed so that the drama performance in the galleries ‘filled in’ what is missing from the metope scenes about Hercules in the Cast Gallery. These are scenes of victorious moments from the ancient Greco-Roman myths. These are casts (plaster cast copies) of what was found by archaeologists.  Parts of the scenes have been lost:  the teenagers’ drama ‘filled in the gaps of the scenes’, the preceding stories and the rest of the labours of Hercules and story of his life. For instance, with the legend of the Killing of the Nemean Lion this was very effective with the scene of Hercules and the Lion behind the performers. 

The students performed in a space marked out in the Cast Gallery with the metopes and statue of Nike at the centre of the performance. The original project proposal encourages creative use of museum space, with the possibility of the students using the whole of the gallery or perhaps having a moving/promenade audience but the performance took place in one part of the gallery, because the relevant objects were there and because of health and safety issues surrounding performance in a gallery of plaster casts. The production used audience participation, for instance asking for an audience member to be in the performance area and be part of a trees scene for the legend ‘Apples of the Hesperides’. The audience did not just watch the production, they “played their own part” as it were. An audience member who took part in the audience participation, Mary Frampton, emailed me to express her feelings about this experience. Since the project this audience member has taken up drama improvisation as an interest and says this project was an influence. 

"Watching it in the Ashmolean itself was a great way to bring to life the exhibits and make the connection between the historical items on display and the legends that they form part of. When I was approached by one of the performers to be a tree in one of the scenes it was great – they were very persuasive – I didn’t have a moment to think about it and suddenly I was up there in the middle of the stage! The experience certainly added another dimension for me as an audience member. It made me feel even more invested in the story - part of the story, and the experience will stick in my mind more so because of it".  Mary Frampton, audience member

To compare with a performance on stage a production of Hercules Dance Cabaret  by the New Art Club (24th and 25th July 2015) Peacock Theatre, London was a production for families that used ‘elements of pantomime, dance, cabaret and comedy’ to tell the 12 Labours of Hercules. The performers were all adults, and the production was very creative; ‘Packed with dancing monsters, hula-hooping Amazonian queens and even a Paso Doble’ (Sadler's Wells). This production used audience participation, encouraging people to dance and stand from their seats. The stage set incorporated classical architecture reproducing a classical ruin and some dancers dressed as modern clubbers. With the Ashmolean production there was a designated stage space but it was not so divided between stage and audience that the audience and actors were on the same level architecturally from the audience and some audience members took part.

The project was organised so that Creation Theatre was hosted by the Ashmolean. The Creation Theatre website states that ‘All over Oxford we find unusual spaces – these stories aren’t set in theatres so we don’t put them there. Castles, antique mirror tents, college gardens, bookshops and factories… we’ll go wherever the stories take us, and so far we’ve taken over 500,000 people with us…From the thousands of children who’ve told classic stories in new ways through our education programme, to our professional actors and directors’ (Creation Theatre). The Hercules project fit with this. “Working in the Ashmolean is great for our workshop kids, as it provides a hands-on opportunity for them understand the historical context of the text they perform. By performing in a museum, the students can further understand the interplay between theatre and history – using drama as a form of storytelling.  It also helps to boost their confidence, by performing in an public space.” Maddy Breen, Education Manager, Creation Theatre Company 2016

In a document evaluating the success of the Hercules project I suggested that Anthony and Cleopatra could be the next production for 2016. This is a play by William Shakespeare set in Egypt and Rome, with the two main characters from the two locations. In terms of relating to the objects, the Randolph Sculpture Gallery at the Ashmolean contains Greek and Roman sculpture, and Gallery 27 ‘Egypt Meets Greece and Rome’ ‘charts the history of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great’ (Ashmolean Floor by Floor Guide 2011 p.57). This would link in well with the ‘Crossing Cultures Crossing Times’ curatorial theme of the Ashmolean which is based on the idea that cultures influence each other and encourages connections between cultures.  The project ran this summer, to coincide with the Shakespeare Anniversary Celebrations, performance in the Cast Gallery. 

This year technology was integrated into the learning process- the students collected information and created picture collages about the objects in the museum on iPads for inspiration.  The Education Officer gave a brief historical introduction to the historical period of Antony and Cleopatra and the relationship between Rome and Egypt and a tour of some of the key objects in the galleries.

The group of students was split in half - 5 in Egypt, 5 in Rome - and each was given a separate topic to explore and they each made a page of inspiration and ideas from real objects which they emailed to themselves. They used these to imagine how they would create a set and props for the play, back at their next workshops.

I could see the influence on the costumes in the final performance, in the round within an area marked out by a string, in the Cast Gallery. Though short the performance gave a good idea of the themes of the play and inspiration from museum objects, a daytime performance unusual at the Ashmolean.

Creation Theatre are next partnering with the Ashmolean for a late night event Under the Sea the theme fitting with the current exhibition of Storms, War & Shipwrecks, allowing visitors to explore the museum after dark with interactive theatrical performances in the galleries. This explores a different audience demographic with a paying audience.

I wrote the Hercules project to explore the possibilities of creative interpretation of well known tales exploring a new possibilities of museum theatre and education, object interpretation and storytelling. The project was developed to run a second year and I believe it could run in future years. My suggestions for future projects include: Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, to be performed in gallery 19 Ancient Near East. This gallery contains items from an area which now includes Iraq. Agatha Christies’ husband Max Mallowan was an archaeologist who worked on the sites referred to in her books . The novel ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ published in 1936, included descriptive writing from trips to this area. Mallowan was an archaeologist who had studied Classics at New College here in Oxford, there are great links to the history of Oxford and the history of the collections of the Ashmolean. 

The Trojan War, this is a Greek myth involving the character of Laocoon and warriors hiding inside a huge wooden horse. In terms of objects at the Ashmolean there is a cast of the priest Laocoon being murdered by two snakes, this is one of the most complex and stunning of the casts.

When asked what is the future of this kind of project in the museum, Jo Rice Head of Education at the Ashmolean says that “Drama is part of a range of creative and interpretive tools and techniques we use to bring the Ashmolean collections to life and to engage with new audiences. Drama in the galleries is something we would like to continue to explore, use and develop.” Jo Rice Head of Education, Ashmolean Museum, 2016