What makes a classic? Everyone has his or her own ideas on the subject, but two obvious criteria are universality and timelessness. When a work created two hundred or even two thousand years ago still seems applicable to our own lives then it surely merits classic status. In literature, archaisms of language and custom too often distance the uninitiated reader from the work, obscuring the very universality that has preserved it for so long; in the theater, not only language but costume and accent can have this alienating effect. How do directors, writers, and translators deal with the challenge?

The stories of the brutal Bronze Age warlord Agamemnon have proved peculiarly inspiring: from Aeschylus to Euripides, from Nietzsche to the young men who gave their lives at Gallipoli during the First World War, each generation reinvents and reinterprets the Homeric tales in light of its own situation. Our own is no exception, and Charles Mee&rs ...