What's on Stage Up the Real Pompeii; COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY IS BRINGING TO LIFE HISTORIC WALL PAINTINGS THAT DEPICT THEATRICAL ENTERTAINMENT IN THE DAYS BEFORE VESUVIUS ERUPTED
Byline: Paula Hall
COVENTRY has its Belgrade Theatre but lost the Hippodrome as a venue for shows years ago. The Romans would have had no such problems. Ancient wall paintings in the "theatre-mad" town of Pompeii have revealed their passion for entertainment and escapism. Two Warwick University experts are now unravelling their secrets to recreate Roman theatres using virtual reality. PAULA HALL reports
IT'S a Friday night in Pompeii and you're looking for somewhere to go.
Vesuvius hasn't yet erupted and there are a few choices on offer.
There are gladiators in the amphitheatre, the 6,000-seater theatre for variety shows or plays, or the smaller odeon for a more intimate evening of poetry or recitals.
Violence, comedy, tragedy and music - there's something to suit every taste.
And the performance may be sponsored by a politician who's keen to be popular. The chances are that tokens will be slung-shot into the crowd - pick one up and you could redeem it after the show to win a slave or a horse.
In a tiny office at Warwick University, two thousand years later, 21st century computer technology is allowing experts to recreate using virtual reality what it was like to sit in the audience or tread the boards during Roman times.
The Romans were passionate about their theatres - and chose to depict them in the extravagant wall paintings which decorated their homes.
Prof Richard Beacham and Dr Hugh Denard from the theatre studies department have now been awarded pounds 54,320 by the Leverhulme Trust, for an 18-month project to analyse these wall paintings - and reconstruct the theatres their inhabitants loved so well.
"There was an active theatre culture in the town and that's been reflected in the things people chose to have painted on their walls," says Dr Denard.
"From these we can create virtual models and put virtual actors on these stages, and you can see what it would have been like to be a member of the audience watching."
One benefit of using the paintings is that it's possible to recreate early wooden stages and sets which haven't survived in the same way as stone, leaving historians with Roman plays but little knowledge of what they were performed on.
The project involves separating the images of actual stage sets depicted in the wall paintings, from the extra bits of escapism the Romans liked to add in, like impossible architecture and mythical elements.
Prof Beacham and Dr Denard will pull out the facts from the fantastical - and then work out what the actual theatres would have been like. Their work will also allow 3-D virtual reconstructions of the Roman homes themselves.
The wall paintings are hugely colourful and detailed, and combined with gaudy mosaic floors and stucco ceilings, would have left visitors in no doubt that the owner was someone of note.
Dr Denard says: "These houses were covered in wall paintings. It wasn't just that they wanted nice decoration - it was conspicuous consumption, a way of broadcasting their importance to everyone who came into their houses.
"The villas at Pompeii weren't private in the sense we understand it. Those who had them received the public into their homes so people could see these things.
"The Roman house has a whole lot of different sections - you'd walk in and have a public area, then a nice garden and other rooms, and depending how close to the family you were you'd get greater or lesser access.
"If you were very intimate you would have got into the bedroom and that was a sign you'd got the greatest degree of respect.
"Because we can recreate these houses we can see what it was like to wander around."
More than 1,000 digital photographs have already been taken of Pompeii's wall paintings.
They have also been drawn from museums around the world. Experts over the years have taken Pompeii's paintings to put them on show and preserve them - so it means the left wall of a room can be in New York while the right wall can be in Berlin. …