Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The ORESTEIA - the daddy of them all...

This year has seen us visiting the Globe Theatre a stonking five times - last year I finally got to like the space after four visits - but here we were at our sixth and last visit this year to the main stage (we have a couple of productions booked for the indoor Playhouse later in the year) and we went out on a biggie... the daddy of them all, Aeschylus' THE ORESTEIA.

THE ORESTEIA is the only existing trilogy from the ancient Greek theatre and pre-dates Sophocles' ANTIGONE, OEDIPUS THE KING and ELECTRA as well as MEDEA, THE TROJAN WOMEN, ANDROMACHE, HECUBA and THE BACCHAE by Euripedes.  It is known that THE ORESTEIA was presented with the first prize at the Dionysea festival in Athens when it was first performed in 458 b.c. and was his last great success as he was killed two years later, famously by a falling tortoise dropped by an eagle flying overhead - it's worthy of one of the tragedies!

Aeschylus had been a successful soldier before his playwright years and it was as a soldier that he was memorialised but his work was so highly prized that his were the only plays that were allowed to be re-staged in following festivals - it was the rule that plays were only to be staged once.

Down the years the plays have inspired all great tragedies with their mixture of cracking revenge plots - where would today's soaps be without the revenge storylines? - and memorable, vibrant characters: proud but doomed Agamemnon, calculating Clytemnestra, tragic Cassandra, conniving Aegisthus, driven Orestes and distraught Electra.  There is another production currently running with the absurd adline: "Part The Godfather, Part Breaking Bad" - you could equally cite Hamlet and/or Game of Thrones... they all flow from The Oresteia - and apart from Hamlet, it still has the power to wipe the floor with all successors.

I have seen the trilogy twice: the legendary Peter Hall production at the National Theatre which staged them in masks and with an all-male cast and the more director-theatre version directed by Katie Mitchell in 1999.  Adele Thomas' production mixes various styles of dress and imagery and uses a new translation by Rory Mullarkey.  Despite the odd bit of clunky business - and an out-of-nowhere finale - I enjoyed it very much.

Of the three plays I enjoyed the first, AGAMEMNON the best as it is the perfect revenge drama with Clytemnestra proving to be one of the great women's roles in drama.  Mullarkey's plain-English text speeds the action along with edge-of-the-seat tension: a watchman finally sees a far-distant beacon burning - the sign he has gone without sleep to see which lets him know that the Trojan War is over and King Agamemnon is returning home.  The chorus of dejected Greeks cannot believe their ears that the ten-year war is finally over but get confirmation from a weary soldier herald.

Queen Clytemnestra makes frequent appearances from the House of Atreus to scornfully mock the chorus for their doubts and to alert us that Agamemnon has a deadlier foe at home.  Ten years before, to implore the gods for a fair wind for his ships to sail to Troy, Agamemnon killed his daughter Iphegenia in sacrifice... and Clytemnestra wants her revenge.

The second play THE LIBATION-BEARERS finds their son Orestes returning back to his home after years away and finds his sister Electra in misery at their father's death and together they plan to revenge their father's murder - so often during this play one is reminded of HAMLET.

The final play, THE KINDLY ONES, brings the action full-circle with Clytemnestra's ghost awakening the Furies to chase Orestes forever to avenge the matricide.  He travels to Athens to be judged by the goddess Athena as to whether he is guilty or not.  And so the courtroom drama was born too...

As I said Rory Mullarkey's adaptation was direct and unambiguous which worked well and certainly made plain the thoughts that will never date - the weary herald's rebuking the chorus for their glorying in Greece's triumph of Troy when all he wants is to return to his home which is also mirrored in Agamemnon's statement that the time for attributing blame in the run-up to war will be decided at a future time - Chilcott anyone?  However there was a lack of poetry in his text which was probably highlighted by my previous experience of the trilogy's previous rough-hewn adapters, poets Tony Harrison and Ted Hughes.

As I said Adele Hughes' production was uncluttered and spare, concentrating all the action on the word and the character speaking it - only at the end did it all go a bit up the Atreus.  Now we know that the Globe always ends it's productions however body-strewn with a dance - as in Shakespeare's day - and THE ORESTEIA when first staged would have been followed with a fourth play, a Satyr play poking fun at the blood and guts that had gone before - but it was still a shock when just after Athena - in full golden disco frock - turned the Furies from avenging creatures into the sacred, beneficent guardians of Athens - brassy music started playing and all the cast got happy-clappy around a large golden phallus with a blacked-up tubby and small Pan running around!

Despite this nerve-jangling coda, I would urge you to experience this production and to also applaud the performances of George Irving as Agamemnon, Naana Agyei-Ampadu as the distraught Cassandra - the only drawback is Thomas has most of her speech sung which throws the rhythm of the scene - Dennis Herdman's war-weary herald and Joel MacCormack's vengeful Orestes - he didn't even let an upstage exploding brazier put him off his stride!

The performance of the night was Katy Stephens' marvellous Clytemnestra.  Some with long memories may remember I used her as my e-mail address for a long time - such a 2YK tribute - so you can probably guess that she is truly one of my favourite characters in theatre. Sarcastic, proud, lustful and intent on enacting her revenge - it is a mighty role and Katy Stephens was magnetic, you simply could not watch anyone else when she was onstage - and not just because of her a-line Bridget Riley formal!

By the way, the onstage golden phallus at the end reminded me of one of my favourite Coral Browne stories: she went to Peter Brook's 1967 modern-dress version of OEDIPUS for the National Theatre when at the Old Vic.  After Irene Worth stabbed herself and John Gielgud blinded himself, onstage suddenly appeared a huge golden phallus while the cast danced into the auditorium while a jazz band played "Yes We Have No Bananas".  Browne eyed the giant knob and turned to her companion saying "Well, nobody *I* know!"

Now... what a Clytemnestra Coral would have been!

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