Monday, 19 March 2012

Theatre review: The Oresteia

The Oresteia is another play I have a personal connection with, having appeared in a production at University (I was a chorus member in Agamemnon and Orestes in Eumenides.) Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, only to be murdered by his wife in revenge for him sacrificing their daughter to the gods (Agamemnon.) His remaining children Orestes and Electra plot to murder their mother and her lover, and as a result Orestes incurs the wrath of the Furies for matricide (Choephoroi, which covers similar ground to Sophocles' Electra.) Finally, Orestes is put on trial in Athens' newly-minted democracy, and the Furies are forced to give up their claim on his life (Eumenides.) After 17-odd years I'm not sure what I was expecting but what I got was utterly mental: The opening, where the actors stand still and each recites one critical line from the plays (twice) was a clue. When we then go to the Watchman (Joe Robert Buckingham) yelling the opening speech while backstage the rest of the cast bark and growl, it's already clear that the House of Atreus has been turned into The House That Irony Forgot.

Anastasia Revi's production for Theatre Lab condenses Ted Hughes' translation of Aeschylus' trilogy into a single play, and although fruit is an inexplicable visual theme, the foodstuff that most came to mind was ham, as the actors gurn their way across the stage, confident that SHOUTING  random WORDS is the SAME thing as ACTING. Maria Konomis' set is dark green with bacofoil trimmings, while the modern-dress costumes tend to have the odd sleeve missing, replaced with a knitted one. There's actually quite an emphasis on knitwear, because Zeus knows you'd never survive a ten-year siege without a nice cardie. To be fair Ryan Hurst's Agamemnon is also wearing a basque. I don't know if it's for protection, or if he just likes wearing lingerie. Meanwhile Orestes' leather jacket has lots of tweed patches, because presumably someone, somewhere, got very confused. The patchwork look extends to the red carpet Agamemnon walks in on, which is inexplicably covered in red clothes. All this despite the script's repeated insistence that the carpet's supposed to be purple.

The actors are happy to bring BIG to the small space and along with all the caterwauling, eyebrow-raising and nostril-flaring, I have to mention Adam Youssefbeygi's Herald, whose ability to display 37 facial expressions per second, none of them relevant to the character at the time, is something to be seen. But perhaps worried that Greek Tragedy's still not action-packed enough, Revi has also loaded the production with movement gimmicks that almost invariably add nothing, except perhaps a sense of bafflement. So there's a lot of rhythmic chest-beating, people flinging themselves around the stage, and one scene where the chorus seemed to be experiencing repeated fits of narcolepsy and thudding to the ground. Kitty Paitazoglou is amazingly flexible, as we find out when her Cassandra makes her prophecies while doing Exorcist spider-walks across the stage. When this loses its sheen, Revi has her roll across the stage while the Chorus force-feeds her strawberries, because there really is no better way to clearly deliver a speech.

Strawberries feature a lot in Agamemnon, while in Choephoroi they're replaced by crushed, or occasionally fondled oranges. I was disappointed the fruit theme was ditched by Eumenides, as we could have had bananas to represent the male-dominated Athenian democracy's victory over the Furies' matriarchy. In the absence of food, the Furies lick some rope. I have a horrible feeling it might have been meant to be sexy.

Revi seems keen to create strong visuals, what with strewn flower petals, ghosts covered in mud and plentiful stylised movement; although she might want to look into why so many of her tableaux end with one actor's face buried in another's crotch. Let alone the bit where the libation bearers form a human centipede. I guess if you throw enough shit some sticks, as I actually really liked how lipstick transformed the chorus of libation bearers from the second play, into the chorus of Furies for the third. But I'm not sure why Claire Porter's Clytemnestra appeared to be trying to fuck a carpet at one point. And between jiggling like she needs a pee when her life is in danger, and squatting in a way I was sure would result in a little present deposited on the floor, there's something very lavatorial about her performance.

The second act, which conflates Choephoroi and Eumenides, is a slight improvement, largely thanks to the arrival of Tobias Deacon as Orestes. Along with Helen Bang's Athena, Deacon comes closest to salvaging a shred of dignity, mainly through seeming to know what the words mean, and how a person might say them. But dignity can only survive so much, as seen when he's required to greet his mother's ghost by pecking his chin at her like a chicken.

The company have left a guestbook outside the theatre door, for the audience to leave comments. I'm not sure leaving it open on a page with "TERRIBLE!" scrawled right across it is the greatest of marketing moves, but maybe they just had to work with what they had.

The Oresteia by Aeschylus in a translation by Ted Hughes is booking until the 24th of March at Riverside Studio 3.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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