ph: Michele Pantano

We had the opportunity to talk with Gary McCann set and costume designer of Fedra directed by Paul Curran staging at Greek Amphitheatre of Syracuse.

Gary said:

As a set designer, you’re faced with both the challenges and opportunities that designing within a specific setting brings. Whether textually, culturally, or spatially, we strive to align both the piece and the space it inhabits, whilst providing a clear context and perspective to the audience (aesthetically). Unlike many of my opera productions, collaborating with Fondazione INDA in the Greek amphitheatre of Syracuse presented a unique set of challenges and opportunities – in the form of interpreting the ancient Greek tragedy of Fedra by Euripides for a modern audience and making sense of it in the present day – whilst working in a setting that the piece was originally intended to be played in, all those thousands of years ago.


Fedra centres around the breakdown of a powerful and aristocratic woman who is largely the mistress of her own downfall. Nevertheless, there are several influential external factors at play, notably these include the machinations of the all-powerful gods, who assert their authority and power in various ways throughout the of the story.


From a modern perspective, it is paramount that both the stage designer and director analyse (to a greater or lesser degree) the psychology of each of the characters at the centre of the drama. This analysis helps to ensure the staging and performance environment effectively house and communicate the mental state of the dramatic personae of the play to the audience. Gary said that: "Paul and I therefore arrived at the idea of a striking and giant phrenologist’s head, which in turn doubles as a monumental bust of the goddess Artemis - and not withholding the obvious symbolism of a ‘mask’. (Masks being traditionally used by each of the actors taking part in plays in the days of ancient Greece itself)".    

ph: Maria Pia Ballarino


All these facets of the monumental head, that forms the centrepiece of the staging, benefit from bespoke lighting, video mapping, and dynamic physical transformations - which enable the creation a variety of feelings and moods. 


The steel scaffolding which supports and surrounds the head infers to the audience that a monumental, ancient construction is currently being repaired or excavated for archaeological reasons. This enables us to reflect on the idea that we are uncovering an ancient play and text and re-presenting it thousands of years later, in 2024. 


The physical size and space of the 2500-year-old Greek Amphitheatre of Syracuse, (which seats a modern audience of 5,000 people) plays a significant and critical part in the creative approach and processes that have undertaken in developing the sets for Fedra. By utilising multiple walkways, platforms, and intricate staircases, the perfomers were allowed to use the full height and depth of the space - whilst reinforcing the theme of uncovering (and rediscovering) the ancient in both the present day and the modern world. 


The neat trick here being, and it may come as no surprise, that the amphitheatre itself is located in the centre of one of the most important archaeological parks in Italy-  the Archaeological Park of Neapolis – the park includes multiple caves and structures hewn from the rocky hillside, including the second largest altar in the ancient Greek world and the tomb of the famous mathematician, physicists, and engineer Archimedes (who was born, lived, and died in Syracuse). 


 A great opera, in an astounishing historical place, an unmissable cathartic event.

ph: Michele Pantano

ph: Maria Pia Ballarino

ph: Michele Pantano

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