The Oresteia, The Globe, 15 October 2015 (matinée)
On the palace wall is a daub of red graffiti in tall letters:
Everyone in the Globe knows at once that these words are from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, line 1430. They are the concerned words from the Chorus to their queen, Clytemnestra, translated by Louis MacNeice as, ‘you must / Pay for a blow with a blow’. In the excellent middle section of this production, this boxer’s trade-off is compellingly presented.
This Oresteia, directed by Adele Thomas, is largely faithful to the structure of Aeschylus’, and Rory Mullarkey’s translation moves with poetic diction and rhythm in the choral parts. The text works hard to emphasize the pervasive opposition in the trilogy. Early, the chorus describes war wounds with the chiasmus, ‘members truncated and trunks dismembered’; while the opposed elements of their sorrowful refrain, αἴλινον αἴλινον εἰπέ, τὸ δ᾽ εὖ νικάτω (MacNeice again: ‘Cry, cry upon Death; but may the good prevail’) is rendered as a conjunction of ‘hopeless’ and ‘hopeful’. The members of the Chorus move around the stage and yard with disconcerting squalls of sound emanating from their capacious coats. The music is by Mira Calix, combining live clarinet, saxophone, and French horn with pre-recorded electronic elements emitted from speakers worn by the Chorus. (Mira Calix has written about the technology on two promotional blogs on the manufacturer’s website [one] [two].)
For me, there were two points when the music, performances, and staging combined with powerful results. The first was Cassandra’s great scene. This is often an opportunity for a director to change the pace and the emotional focus of the play. It presents a voice from the destroyed city of Troy, breaking out from traumatised silence. It also contains the first moment when Clytemnestra’s absolute command is challenged effectively, and brings the language of prophecy, history, and the divine into the political stage. This is the fifth different interpretation I have covered (the hissing of Tony Harrison’s version, Helen Mirren’s PVC Apollo-tease, Alex Silverman’s operatic score in the 2010 Cambridge Greek Play, and Hara Yannas’s torrent of untranslated Aeschylus in the Almeida this year). In each case, Cassandra’s scene marks a point of contrast, and in this version, we have a terrific Cassandra (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) whose mantic utterances are matched to an atonal score. She sings, closely accompanied by the clarinet, in what struck me as a sort of a free-jazz Schönberg. Albert Ayler interpreting Pierrot Lunaire? Musicologists in the audience are invited to put me right on this. Either way, it is a moment of tremendous, and different, energy.
The second high point was the second play. After a short interval, this was the best Libation Bearers I have seen. I consider this play a problem for directors. The text is very flat in the first half, containing a moral debate between Orestes, Electra, and the Chorus about whether and how to avenge Agamemnon. It is well-acknowledged that the texts we have of classical Greek plays are essentially librettos of performances with integral songs and dances. In the Globe, the trio of wind and brass players descends from their position in the circle, to play upstage: visually foregrounding the musical score. The Chorus (the company from the Agamemnon, now playing the palace’s slaves) are choreographed in a mockery of the chest-thumping, oath-swearing salute of Clytemnestra in the first play. The rough physicality of the Chorus encircles the compassionate unit of Orestes (Joel MacCormack) and Electra (Rosie Hilal); Orestes’ friend Pylades (Sid Sagar) hanging back until his sole, pivotal line. With movement and music, Orestes’ moral dilemma is dramatized with urgent pace, without losing the solemnity of the text. A greatly satisfying achievement.
Following this, the Eumenides is a disappointment: performed as an impatient dash, as if in fear of the audience becoming tired or bored. Athena in particular is directed to speak her lines as if in a hurry. A new prologue is added about our neglect of old temples and old gods; this serves to remind us to see the Furies in the landscape around us, and not to dismiss them as archaic remnants. But we are also encouraged to ponder the implications of the commercial value of the prime urban locations occupied by Churches. A jarring intervention. The Chorus of Furies are by turns frightening and funny. The first Fury appears at the end of Libation Bearers with sharp, angular choreography of jerks to an electronic glitch soundtrack. This contrast to the rest of the staging is not successfully integrated. Throughout the Eumenides, the Furies risked self-parody with their repertoire of gurns and stares. Audience laughter was possibly played up to, but it is not appropriate. Moreover, if making radical changes to the start of this play – losing the priestess’s beautiful and timely account of the importance of the land – why not update the arguments in the court scene? They are notoriously daft to modern ears (and, some argue, to Attic ears as well), namely, Apollo’s appeal to the ‘flower-pot’ theory of conception (that the mother is merely a vessel for the father’s seed), and Athena’s honouring the male in recognition of her birth from Zeus’s head.
Eumenides aside, moments of humour are played well: as in the messenger’s delight at returning home which then shades into horror in the exchange of news between those who went to war and those who stayed home. As for Aegisthus, he was played as a drunken Geordie (by Trevor Fox, who, since he was in Our Friends in the North, I shall assume is legitimately Geordie). This wrong-footing interpretation was ideal: catching this long-scheming, personally timid, parvenu character perfectly – a terrifying clown.
Unlike the psychologised Clytemnestra presented across the Thames (at the Almeida, then transferred to Trafalgar Studios), the Globe’s Clytemnestra (Katy Stephens) is more in keeping with the traditional interpretation of Aeschylus’ play, and is monstrously ironic from the start – the fearsome watchdog of the house. The monstrousness is expressed on stage by a terrible bloodiness: the production uses comically horrific quantities of Kensington Gore. In the pivotal scene in which Agamemnon walks on rich tapestries into his house, rather than unfolding elaborate embroideries (or visual reminders of his sacrificed daughter’s dresses, as is sometimes staged) the victorious king instead strides, trailing buckets-worth of blood over a pure white carpet. At the Globe, blood is active, lively, messy, and contagious.
Two final points on the staging. Doubling is a well-known motif of the trilogy: most notable is Clytemnestra’s appearance at the palace door with the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, matched by Orestes’ appearance with the bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. A less overt continuation of this tableau is Athena’s presence, flanked by two uncannily similar ‘supernumeraries’ (Emily Dunn and Holly Georgia). At one point I wondered how these supernumeraries managed to have such immaculately identical hair – something of a Mary Quant bob. Much later, I recalled the technology of the wig. The production concludes with a sudden satyr scene: an uproarious revel in contrast to the foregoing tragedy. Here Pan runs about the yard, pulling faces and making obscene gestures in his jet-black, shaggy goat shorts. Just one more thing: he is blacked-up. Perhaps audiences in 2015 are ready to accept white actors in black-face as long as they are portraying mythical hybrid creatures, but it’s undoubtedly an uncomfortable moment. It is, happily, accompanied by the propitious parading of a giant, gold and winged phallus.