The Oresteia / HOME / 28 October 2015
2015s third production of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia (there have been productions at the Almeida and the Globe in London) sets itself apart by running with Ted Hughes’s adaptation, which clocks in at some two hours less than the original and propels its audience through what can only be described as a brisk trot through the highlights of the original tragedy.
One of the oldest plays in existence, having been first performed around 500 years before the birth of Christ, The Oresteia is a trilogy (with an apparent fourth part lost to the sands of time) comprising Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, each of which are delivered as a single narrative performed by a small troop of actors who switch parts throughout.
Proceedings open with Hedydd Dylan sat upon a swing which rises bewilderingly high into the rafters, a nameless watchman set to scan the horizon for the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan wars. The audience watches, smiling nervously, Dylan so at ease upon her high wire as to beggar belief, frequently shifting and fidgeting as gradually action unfolds below.
Lyndsay Marshall’s Clytemnestra quickly dominates the stage, working in tandem with Daniel Millar who fronts the male chorus to bring us up to speed: Agamemnon having sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to assure them of favourable winds ahead of their leaving for Troy ten years earlier (Dylan becomes Iphigenia, hanging upside down, in a trice). This first sacrifice sets the template for the horrors to come.
Of course Clytemnestra bears a grudge; but she has also taken a lover, Aegisthus, whose father, we learn, was fed two of his own children by Agamemnon’s father, Atreus. Together, the two plot to murder Agamemnon upon his return. (And a word here, should be said for the extraordinary set, comprised of what looks like stone chips, swept aside by helpful hands to reveal a bloody carpet for Agamemnon’s return.)
Gary Shelford briefly appears as a blokey Agamemnon, Dylan descending from on high to assume the position of Cassandra, his war spoils, a lady gifted with visions of the future, whose curse is not to be believed. She foresees Agamemnon’s death and her own. The chorus doubt her and powerfully witness the outrage of her visions’ truth. With Agamemnon dispatched, Simon Trinder’s Orestes takes centre stage.
We meet Trinder first as Aegisthus and then later as Orestes, the son who vows to avenge his father’s death by murdering – himself. This doubling harks back to the way the play would have run at the time. Director Blanche McIntyre explained, “I thought it was useful to keep this way of doubling partly because it draws attention to the way the play works and also because I think the links between roles are one of the most important things.” As the first play gives way to the second, and the male chorus gives way to the female chorus (fronted by Ronke Adekoluejo, in one of the standout roles in a play much given to standout performances), another doubling is effected in the appearance of Shelford once more, this time playing Orestes’ sister, Elektra.
The Libation Bearers concludes with the son visiting vengeance upon the mother for the murder of the father (and if you can glimpse the ghost of Hamlet at work here, it’s possibly because Shakespeare himself drew inspiration from Aeschylus) – and this is the point at which the play changes tactics (and many reviews of this version of the play and the other adaptations of The Oresteia find the latter third a little harder to parse): although we have inhabited a world of men in thrall to the Gods, we haven’t been introduced to them in person. The Eumenides features Apollo, Artemis and the Eumenides (or Kindly Ones, if you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman) presiding over the fate of Orestes himself.
Where the first two plays follow a similar narrative arc (character seeks revenge for perceived crime), the third play is much more Twelve Angry Men, with Artemis installing a jury of 12 good men and true to preside over the fate of Orestes. Here we explore the real question at the heart of The Oresteia: was Clytemnestra right to avenge the death of her daughter, was Orestes right to avenge the death of his father, are the Eumenides right to seek the death of Orestes for the murder of his mother?
Director McIntyre is right when she says Ted Hughes’s words are “full of power, without waste. It’s condensed so each line packs a punch.” The visuals at this point also pack a punch, the Eumenides themselves emerging like the demon in Ringu from the back of the stage, swirling and undulating in a way that is both erotic and nightmarish, a black river of death looking to sweep Orestes to his death but held in check by Artemis.
The third play is harder to swallow entirely though (and again, McIntyre is bang on the money when she says: “The final trial turns on a (I think intentionally poor) piece of reasoning about gender and biology”) – because it does seem to suggest that Orestes was right to avenge the death of his father (who we see again in the final part of the play, calling us to from hell), and Clytemnestra was wrong to avenge the death of her daughter. This playfulness when it comes to exploring gender politics was, we imagine, appealing to the Ted Hughes revealed in the pages of Jonathan Bates’ recent biography. It isn’t entirely clear from a single viewing, however, what McIntyre’s take on this intentionally poor piece of reasoning is beyond relaying it to the audience in the way intended.
All told, however, it’s a fierce and bravura piece of theatre, full of sound and fury, a treat for the ears and the eyes, by turns funny and horrifying. The speed with which the action passes and the quality of the words and the performances left this viewer feeling it would benefit from repeated viewings. If that isn’t a strong recommendation, we don’t know what is.