Monday, 8 November 2021

Radio review: The Oresteia - Agamemnon

In the last couple of years when there's been months of theatre downtime I've tried to help replace with BBC Sounds' archive of radio plays, one positive that's come out of it is that I've enjoyed those times when audio drama can do things I'd like to see on stage, but am unlikely ever to because of practical reasons. It could be something like the recent Doctor Faustus, where having John Heffernan play both leading roles for the whole play would technically be possible but probably end up being awkward. Or, as is the case with Aeschylus' Oresteia, a proposition too risky for a venue to programme: Usually heavily edited into a single epic play, it is of course a trilogy of individual tragedies that I've never seen presented on stage separately. Much like Shakespeare's second* Henriad, which even the Globe and RSC tend to ignore as much as humanly possible, it's a big ask to hope audiences will either book in their droves for one part of a larger story, or take a punt on booking an entire trilogy.

Less of a risk for Radio 3, who in 2014 not only adapted the Oresteia as three separate recordings, but also went a step further towards presenting each play in its own right, by giving the writing job to three different playwrights. The opener, Agamemnon, goes to Simon Scardifield, who may have the first part of this particular trilogy but still has to take up the story more than halfway, and so the majority of this play is exposition. Some of this is done in flashback, to the time before the Greek ships sailed to Troy, and the priest Calchas (Karl Johnson) prophesied that only if the Greeks' leader Agamemnon (Hugo Speer) sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia (Georgie Fuller) to Artemis would the winds blow in their favour. The child is slaughtered and after ten years of war Agamemnon is finally victorious and ready to return to Argos. In his pomp and triumph it doesn't occur to him that his queen, Clytemnestra (Lesley Sharp) hasn't forgiven him for murdering their daughter, and has spent the last decade plotting bloody revenge.

Aeschylus' play opens with a watchman looking out for the beacon that will signal the war's end - here a system set up by Clytemnestra specifically so she's got time to prepare for her husband's return - and Scardifield's conceit is to expand that role throughout the play, making the watchmen the Chorus: A young shepherd (Arthur Hughes) is excited to be on his first watch, but a more experienced watchman (Philip Jackson) tries to disabuse him of the notion that this is a glorious moment, having been around ten years earlier. They're later joined in the Chorus by a woman (Carolyn Pickles) who'd been a prostitute when the armies were waiting for the wind to change at Aulis, and had accidentally witnessed the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Between them, they know the whole backstory.

As the central named character, Sharp gives a strong performance in which you can almost see the wild-eyed craziness under her fawning politeness, while towards the end of the story Cassandra (Anamaria Marinca) takes over much of the chorus-like role, first in her prophesies and later, as a ghost, commentating on what's left behind. But the original Chorus remain what's memorable about this interpretation, given enough agency and character that you worry for them as it starts to look like they might have witnessed too much. The tricky thing about Agamemnon is that it refers so much to events earlier in the story, that the original audience could presumably be assumed to be familiar with, but a modern one are much less likely to (Robert Icke dealt with the problem by essentially appending a version of Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis to his own take on the Oresteia.) What's interesting about Scardifield's version is that he makes a virtue out of this need for a massive infodump, turning the play into the Chorus piecing together the story so far, and helplessly witnessing the fact that the bloodshed's far from over.

The Oresteia - Agamemnon by Aeschylus in a version by Simon Scardifield is available on BBC Sounds.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

Image credit: BBC.

*in story order

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