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Posts Tagged ‘Aeschylus’

In a first in my 35 or so years of regular theatre-going, there was a libation ceremony at the beginning of this play. The CEO of the London Borough of Southwark credited and thanked those whose funds had enabled the production before pouring wine over the stage! This apparently replicated what happened when the play was first performed.

This is a 2500-year-old feminist play about a boatload of women who flee North Africa to avoid enforced marriage. In Argos, the Greek citizens democratically vote to give them asylum and send their pursuing menfolk packing before questioning the value of migrants. 2500 years ago!

Playwright David Greig has adapted Aeschylus and its mostly performed by a community chorus of 24 women, with a similar number towards the end representing the citizens of Argos. They speak, sing and chant in unison and move as one. There’s brilliantly atmospheric percussion and pipe accompaniment. It’s got an extraordinary energy about it, and a contemporary feel; the vocals even sound like rap at times, and the movement could be contemporary dance.

I loved Ramin Gray’s production, Sasha Milavic Davies’ choreography and John Browne’s music. There was something very thrilling and exciting about such an old play coming alive for a modern audience, and one of the best community projects I’ve ever experienced.

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After a 34-year absence from the London stage, we have two Oresteia’s at the same time. This one follows the Almeida’s, now at the Trafalgar Studios, and has the added interest of being a 2500 year old play staged in a replica of a 400-year old theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, and the first thing that struck me was that this theatre shares much with the stages of ancient Greece. The arc of the space is like an amphitheatre. The mortals can look up to the open sky to address the gods. By bringing the platform forward, with steps the full width down into the groundling space, it looks very much like a temple, which came into its own in the final play.

My second thought was how extraordinary that two writers can take the same Aeschylus starting point and produce very different adaptations. Here Rory Mullarkey doesn’t add a prequel about Iphigenia’s sacrifice but uses the chorus’ long prologue to set the scene. In fact, in this first play it’s a long while before we meet Clytemnestra, and even longer before Agamemnon returns from the Trojan wars. The chorus are much more than narrators and onlookers, becoming actual citizens, with some playing individual unnamed roles. When Agamemnon does finally arrive, he’s dispatched off-stage before we get the results on-stage! Katy Stephens is terrific as Clytemnestra, a woman possessed, intent on revenge, and Trevor Fox is a brilliant Aegisthus, a real user and a louche.

In the second play, Orestes returns to get his revenge on his mother and her lover, and the character of the chorus changes somewhat, with the use of three-sided masks at one point. The murders are again off-stage and Orestes enters with the bodies (a recycling of Agamemnon’s!). Here, Electra seemed much less of a presence than she was in the Almeida version. I very much liked Joel MacCormack’s passionate Orestes.

In the final play Orestes is tried by Athena with a jury, somewhat appropriately, made up of local citizens. Here we encounter The Furies, brilliantly presented as gothic, highly strung and somewhat childlike creatures. This play seems to have been edited the most, with advocacy by Apollo but little debate before Athena uses her casting vote following a split jury. Again, the role of women in society comes up and today the plays seem sexist, even misogynistic.

The treatment is lighter than the earnest, clinical Almeida version, with many touches of humour (some unintended, I suspect) and the end result feels like a very different trilogy based on the same story. I actually liked both in their own way and I’m glad they turned out so different given they were only three months apart. Not only was this the second Oresteia, but my eighth Greek tragedy this year. Roll on the Almeida’s Medea later in the month.

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It’s clearly going to be my Year of the Greeks. We’re not even half-way through and this is my 5th, and it’s the first of 3 in the Almeida Greeks season. I’ve seen lots of Greek tragedies, but this trilogy has passed me by (apart from an adaptation of one segment recently). I never saw the iconic Peter Hall production at the NT as I’d only just moved to London, was unemployed and hadn’t really got into theatre-going anyway. Director Robert Icke’s new version is contemporary and radical, with a 3 hour playing time, and I thought it worked brilliantly.

This paragraph may be considered a spoiler (of a 2500 year old tale based on Greek mythology!) – Orestia tells the story of Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra and children Elektra, Orestes and Iphigenia. Agamemnon sacrifices his youngest daughter Iphigenia to the gods before leading the Greek army in the Trojan War. Whilst he’s away, his wife moves his cousin / her lover Aegisthus in and when he returns she kills him in revenge for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Orestes, encouraged by his sister Elektra, returns from self-imposed exile to avenge the death of his father by killing his mother and her lover.

Icke appears to have added the pre-war events to Aeschylus, so we see a happy family before Iphigenia’s death, the torment Agamemnon goes through, the sacrifice itself and his departure to war. This gives the plays better context and the normality and happiness of family mealtimes heightens the subsequent tragedy. The ghosts of deceased characters occasionally return and Orestes appears throughout, even when in exile, being ‘interviewed’ about events now passed by what at first appears to be a counsellor or therapist, with a hint of false memory syndrome. This makes sense in the final ‘courtroom’ scene when everything unravels like a detective story. In this final scene, the references to the position of men and women in society feel ever so modern.

The production’s default style is cold, clinical and somewhat austere and there are many long pauses, which makes the outbursts of emotion much more dramatic, moving and occasionally terrifying. They even integrate the need for good timekeeping (it’s 3.5 hours with precisely 28 minutes of breaks!) with the breaks announced, clocks audibly ticking down and ushers issuing reminders. The use of music is terrific, with God Only Knows heard more than once and Nick Lowe’s The Beast in Me a real surprise (to a Lowe fan like me).

Angus Wright and Lia Williams are terrific as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (Wright also plays his ghost and his cousin Aegisthus, which may be why I thought this character’s part had been reduced). Luke Thompson was hugely impressive as a very passionate Orestes. I could hardly believe it was Jessica Brown-Findlay’s stage debut as Elektra, such was her command of the role.  Young actors Eve Benioff Salama as Iphigenia and Ilan Galkoff as the young Orestes were marvellous.

When I booked this for the evening after Everyman I hadn’t thought that I was pairing two morality plays written 2000 years apart. Both have taken ancient material and made them completely relevant for a 21st century audience. Thrilling stuff.

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