The Last Wave

To ‘Pages of Hackney’ last month for a book launch. Pages is a great small independent bookshop I’d not visited before (it opened around the time I left London), with a lively programme of events and extensive second-hand department in the basement. The launch was held in the basement, where I found myself sat next to a display cabinet of pulp erotica. A couple of boxes of LPs were in another corner, and there was so much wine that bottles were stacked up the stairs.

The launch was for The Last Wave, the debut novel by Gillian Best. It centres on the life of Martha, told through the alternating first-person narratives of her family, neighbour, and Martha herself, jumping across time, non-chronologically, from her childhood, and resolving in a symbolic doubling involving her granddaughter.

The opening chapter is set towards the end of the story, boldly breaking the narrative arc by revealing the story’s trajectory, thus placing the novel’s emphasis on individual moments in a family’s life. As each chapter changes voices through the book, we are brought into lives which contain some joy and plenty of regret, and I had a better time with some members of the family than others. I was most won over by the granddaughter, Myrtle, whose combination of drive and wit optimistically counterbalanced the anxieties of adulthood.

The novel is weighted by what one might think of as hot topics for a newspaper: not just Alzheimer’s, but also cancer! Not just post-war sexual repression, but also twenty-first century lesbian coming out! But Best deals with delicate themes authoritatively, avoiding crassness, and with some subtly powerful detail, as in a quiet observation of death’s bureaucracy. When siblings Harriet and Iain are shown a catalogue of cremation urns, Harriet’s thoughts turn unexpectedly to the copy-writer: ‘I thought about the person who had had to write the copy for the brochure, to quietly and sombrely extol the virtues of a gold-plated urn over a simple and understated china white urn. […] It was absurd’ (283-84).

The sea, specifically the English Channel, provides a persistent backdrop for the book, whoever the narrator, and whatever the time-period. Martha derives spiritual strength from the sea, but this remains elusive to those around her, and the sea stops short of taking on the archetypal or transcendental status of a character itself. Yet the book begins with an archetypal image, introducing a terrifically tense opening chapter inside the mind of Martha’s husband. John reaches out for the absent Martha in their bed, her whereabouts unknown. This is a motif that goes back to the ancients: Menelaus does it to the absent Helen in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (424-5); more recently, Mr Ramsay does it in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (Time Passes §3). Best takes this image and embellishes it with items from the world she has created – the sand, the seabed – making it resonate freshly.

Jung within Freud

In July I made my first visit to the Freud Museum in London. The occasion was a conference entitled ‘Ecstatic Ancient / Archaic Thought and Analytical Psychology: An Inquiry’, and behind the title lay the intention to discover the ways in which archaic and ancient cultures understood what we today think of as the unconscious. Furthermore, the conference sought to recover the place of Carl Jung in such discussions, who is felt to be under-represented, compared to Freud, Lacan, and so on.

If there was any irony in the fact that we convened in Freud’s house to concentrate on the legacy of his great apostate, it did not reveal itself in sub-disciplinary antagonism. Any rancour was reserved to the final moments of the conference, and concerned a more modern academic schism.

Inevitably, many of the papers (including my own) concerned aspects of Greek thought. Euripides’ Dionysian tragedy, the Bacchae fitted the theme particularly well. Scott Farrington’s reading of the Bacchae considered dramatic performance as ritual: in effect, there is no spectator. To observe a ritual is to participate in it, and all present are connected in an invisible web. Mark Saban’s paper returned to Dionysus in the second day of the conference. He addressed the root of ‘ecstatic’ in the Greek ek-stasis, standing outside one’s self, and returned to the idea of the theatre audience standing outside the self and extending sympathetically to the other. A gnomic thought I jotted down has become one of those notes that made perfect sense at the time, but has since taken on an air of enigmatic mystery, namely that to encounter Dionysus is to see the unconscious seeing ourselves…

Further distinguished papers came from Catriona Miller, whose discussion of the Sumerian underworld probed the changing signification of Abzu/Apzu; Terence Dawson, who highlighted the beautiful affirmation of cyclical history in the opening of the classical Chinese Novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms: ‘Here begins our tale. The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.’ Alan Cardew performed a characteristically erudite and witty collision of German classicism and late antiquity; Richard Seaford horrified us with an extension of his theory that an abstract system of money was central to the development of philosophy and ideas of the self; and Emmanuela Bakola put forward a winning argument for a staging of Aeschylus’s Oresteia in which the Furies are revealed in shocking, brief flashes prior to their main entrance.

The final presentation of the conference was by Paul Bishop who, among other things, noted that interest in the ekstatic and the archaic is counter to dominant thinking in the humanities. This has indeed been my experience: materialism (or historical materialism and dialectical materialism) is the foundation of a compelling critique of contemporary social relations but it often seems to inculcate a suspicion of other ways of viewing the world. So there is work to be done on advocating the potential for mythical structures of thought to be perceived, not as the inevitable root of totalitarian ideology, but as opening a way for transcending the degraded social relations of (if you will) late capitalism.

This great conference, organised by Leslie Gardner, ended with an open discussion session which erupted into an impassioned argument about the benefits or otherwise of neuroscience (also known as biopsychology or, waggishly, neurobollocks). I have no informed opinion about this, and watched in bemusement as some interlocutors simply refused to acknowledge a divergent view. I ended up with the rough supposition that, from a humanities perspective, neuroscience may be useful historically, in describing processes, it is useless analytically. But I am willing to be corrected.

This took us a long way from where I felt the conference belonged. So I’ll conclude with a comment Richard Seaford made in response to Paul Bishop’s paper. You know the Wisdom of Silenus: it is best not to be born; but the second best is to die quickly. It is the cornerstone of pessimistic philosophy. Prof. Seaford reminded us of the context: Silenus tells it to Midas – the king doomed to turn all he touches into gold. To Midas the words are entirely appropriate. The Triteness of Silenus! Yet surely Silenus is thought to be addressing the tragedy of humanity in general, and not just the destructive avariciousness represented by Midas? That’s one to ponder was we stroll downstairs to Freud’s couch for a nice lie down.

Trying to take a mythical, long view

Titian Europa
Titian, The Rape of Europa (1562)

Like the rape of Helen by Paris, this is an act of sexual coercion with historically portentous consequences: Europa’s rape will literally give rise to Europe. From her union with Jupiter, Minos will be born, and the most ancient of European civilizations on the island of Crete. Her brother Cadmus, the inventor of writing, will search for her, and found the great ancient city of Thebes. The painting records no less than the birth of civilization.
(Stephen J. Campbell)

I am reflecting on the result of the EU referendum. Whatever the motives of the individuals who voted to leave the EU (and I don’t share the view of some on the left that the “leave” vote will deliver opportunities to chip away at the global neoliberal hegemony), the rhetoric of the official campaign unapologetically exploited a spectrum from xenophobia to racism. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I want to start washing that out with some thoughts about myth and the British mind.

The “natural” [English-language] national myth ought to have been Arthurian – as Malory, Milton, Tennyson or T. H. White variously supposed. Did, for Britain, the major Christian legends and typologies not lie to hand as they did on the Continent of Europe? What Faustus after Marlowe in English literature is there to be set beside Valéry’s or Bulgakov’s or Thomas Mann’s? What Don Juan except Byron’s? No, it is to Achilles and Odysseus, to the “topless towers of Ilium” and the shores of Ithaka, it is to “deep-browed Homer” that English-language sensibility turns and returns, incessantly, as if striving to appropriate to itself, to the native genius, material already, by some destined or elective affinity, its own.
(George Steiner, ‘Homer in English’)

Steiner notes the same lack of a native mythology that Tolkien wanted to address, but if we have appropriated the Greek, do we need another? (England, of course, never embraced the Celts.) Our mythology is Greek, our early literature is Scandinavian, and our longest-established religion is from the Eastern Mediterranean. But it seems this cultural openness has always been accompanied by suspicion, see Horace, who, in the first century BC, described Britons as hostile to strangers (Ode 3.4, a trait recently discussed by Edith Hall). This mind-body dualism finds its political analogue in the forty-eight/fifty-two per cent split of the referendum vote.

One of the uses of myth is to shore up social or national identity, and the global mythology of our literature is countered by the folk figures of John Bull, Britannia, and a recently deified Churchill. But these figures seem fixed in the public imagination: unlike mythical beings, their stories do not admit change and metamorphosis. Marina Warner surveyed the development of Britannia as a national figure and finds a peculiar, and still recognizable paradox in James Thomson’s ‘Rule Britannia!’: ‘The rhetoric exposes the tension between the Britannia who upholds the freedom of democracy […] and the Britannia who herself brings nations under subjection’ (Monuments and Maidens, 46).

But a living mythology should not be stuck and backward-looking, it should ease transition. In fifth-century Athens, Aeschylus had Orestes speak a charter for a new political arrangement: pledging the military assistance of Argos alongside Athens (Eumenides, 762-77). It’s a pledge of union, of unity after monstrous bloodshed. Alas, like the EU, the union is destructively imperfect: if the ideal of the EU is, in part at least, to keep peace within the union, the Oresteian parallel of plenty of war beyond the borders (Eumenides 858-66) is also revoltingly apposite.

In seeking the strength to combat fascist propaganda, why not look to the apocalypse? (apokaluptein is, literally, ‘to uncover’.) Myths of the apocalypse invariably culminate in a rebirth, reminding us of the circularity of existence. What seems dismal now is not eternal. This is the aftermath of Ragnarök (in a rather selective translation from Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, by C. Fee and D. A. Leeming):

The earth will rise from the deeps again one day, green and blossoming, and crops will flourish where none were planted. A new sun will take the place of her mother, and a number of gods will return to the ancient ruins of Asgard, led now by Baldr. Lif and Lifthrasir will survive to renew the race of men: they will have hidden themselves securely in Yggdrasill’s embrace, and the fire of Surt will not scorch them: they will survive on the morning dew, and keep watch through the branches above them for the new sun rising. And thus, through its death, the world will be born again.

 

Oresteia at the Globe

The Oresteia, The Globe, 15 October 2015 (matinée)

oresteia globe stageOn the palace wall is a daub of red graffiti in tall letters:

ΤΎΜΜΑ
ΤΎΜΜΑΤΙ
ΤΕΙΣΑΙ

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.

Oresteia at the Almeida

Oresteia, Almeida, 8 July 2015 (matinée)

IckeExhibitsIn 493 BC the Greek Tragedian Phrynichus produced The Fall of Miletus at the Theatre of Dionysus. It was a response to the capture of the city by the Persians the previous year, and, Herodotus tells us, ‘the audience burst into tears and fined him a thousand drachmas for reminding them of a disaster that was so close to home’ (6.21, tr. Waterfield). I am inclined to level a similar fine against the Almeida’s Oresteia, which brings ancient tragedy home to its contemporary audience with unremitting emotive force. The play starts almost exactly on time, and the strict keeping of time is vital throughout; at many points a second’s ticking is heard in the background. The company slowly wanders on the stage, observing the audience, looking around the room. This goes on for longer than is perhaps comfortable for the audience: the cast take total possession of the room in this way. Then all but two depart, Agamemnon – instantly recognizable, Angus Wright could barely play anyone else: tall, slim, with high, cavernous cheekbones, and slicked-back grey hair – and another, whom the script identifies as Calchas (Rudi Dharmalingam), but his role in this play is more extensive than that of Aeschylus’ Calchas.

The first word in Robert Icke’s version is the same as Aeschylus’: ‘Theous’, but rather than opening the Watchman’s prayer for release from his nocturnal vigil, it is followed by a string of epithets for God, a string which crucially includes ‘The Judge. The Father.’ Icke’s version explicitly ties the authority of family, law, and religion together in a binding, bloody mesh. This is followed by some decidedly colloquial, even clichéd, language, confirming that the source text has fallen away to be carried away by something more immediate. Icke imports more than a little of Euripides into this play, and it is one play: the trilogy reconfigured as a four-act Oresteia. The whole of Act One can be classed as a deep exploration of the moral problem that presented Agamemnon at Aulis. Here the enemy is unnamed and far more immediately threatening than Priam’s Troy. Icke has created a dilemma where we do not have to believe in Zeus Xenios or Artemis in order to sympathise with Agamemnon. To call this play a version of Aeschylus is not strictly accurate: Icke has taken the outline of the trilogy and translated the myth into a twenty-first century social, political and spiritual world.

There is a little too much reliance on shouting to express heightened emotion throughout the play; the first instance is during Agamemnon’s dispute with his brother Menelaus (John Mackay) about the sacrifice (the euphemistic use of this term is powerfully addressed in this version), but there is more with Orestes later. The heightened volume worked best during moments of violent action: the coming of the winds and the assault on Klytemnestra.

Iphigenia is given some witty lines about not wanting to eat deer (a reference to the mythical tradition in which she was miraculously substituted by a deer at the moment of her sacrifice). As in the ancient tragedies, her death is the divine condition of the fair winds to release Agamemnon’s military force. Icke’s script offers two arguments for killing Iphigenia that make rhetorical sense of the senseless proposition: Menelaus asserts that, without the sacrifice, defeat is inevitable, and the future for her is unutterably bleak. When Klytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, alludes to the crimes committed upon others — especially women and girls — in war, Agamemnon interprets this as ‘wisdom’: ‘The child is the price of the war, and we don’t see the price of the war, we don’t see it, and this this will insist that I do’. To spare Iphigenia a worse fate, and for the head of state to suffer what he expects his people to suffer is effective rhetoric indeed, but the decision remains abhorrent and beyond rational conclusion. In that sense, all the rhetoric is wasted. Icke’s Klytemnestra recognizes Agamemnon’s ethos (in the Greek sense, his essential nature): ‘You were always going to do it. You liked to push back against it – it’s a good feeling, surrender, actually – but you knew, you knew from the first moment you heard – even before you heard the question – you knew what your answer would be. This was always going to happen.’

The killing follows shortly. The company has three young actors for Iphigenia; at this performance she was played by Eve Benioff Salama with winning sweetness and, in this scene, obedience. It is a modern killing: the action of the liquid and pill meticulously described by Calchas. Iphigenia sits on Agamemnon’s lap, she wears a saffron dress, opens her mouth playfully to accept the pill. I am not unmoved by this, and when she weakly asks to lie down, and for water, the scene becomes very hard to bear. By the time she is laid down and Agamemnon cries that it was the worst mistake, repeating ‘It was wrong’ (implicitly affirming the inadequacy of language in meeting the situation), and then, stage right, a door opens, spilling bright white light and raging wind, the emotional impact on my body is convulsive. Much of the rest of the play continues at this pitch of imminent emotional rupture.

Act Two picks up roughly where Aeschylus begins: anticipating the return of Agamemnon from the war. I’ve not seen a Klytemnestra more sympathetically played than by Lia Williams here. Her love for her children is apparent, but its overshadowing by grief at the murder of Iphigenia is evident without needing any measly explanation. Indeed, she was so sympathetic, I worried that the script would lose the stupendous scene of her exultation in Agamemnon’s gushing blood that crystallizes her tragedy in Aeschylus’ version. But when the scene arrives, Williams plays it utterly convincingly: she shifts into the mode naturally as the script builds to it, where finally she can announce, ‘I am alive – and I’m free’. By contrast, the role of Cassandra is underplayed in this version: her prophecy too supernatural, her references too specific to Greek mythology. It seems a missed opportunity, given this production’s strong attention to the theme of interpretation. When Cassandra (Hara Yannas) finally speaks, it is in Aeschylus’ original text, untranslated: thus the moving sound of otototoi popoi da / opollon opollon, etc., cries out on the stage, with the other actors’ English text competing over the top.

Act Three corresponds to the Choephoroi, the second play in Aeschylus’ trilogy. The sedate pacing and dialogue of Aeschylus’ version is still a difficulty in Icke’s: it was the only moment when I doubted the script decisions, simply because I felt that the discussion of moral quandary had been comprehensively staged in Act One. These concerns were soon allayed, but this is also the point where I should type out a ‘spoiler warning’. This act contains a stunning innovation that even now raises my arm hairs. The character of Electra (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a textual problem in Aeschylus’ trilogy. Where is she in Agamemnon? Nowhere. What is her role in the second part of Choephoroi? Seemingly forgotten (academics are given to dispute whether she appears at the door with Klytemnestra). Not to mention the famous problem of the graveside recognition, where her footprint exactly matches that of her brother. Icke deals with this in a simple and obvious way. Throughout the play, Orestes (Luke Thompson) is on stage in parallel dialogue with the character identified in the script as ‘Doctor’ (Lorna Brown): she seems at first therapist, then barrister or prosecutor. It is unarguably a production which emphasizes the characters’ individual psychology. After the heart-racing scene in which Klytemnestra and Orestes appear reconciled — then blackout — then Electra throttling Klytemnestra — then blackout — then Orestes throttling Klytemnestra, the Doctor confirms, ‘You’ve survived a trauma. Your sister died, Orestes: your sister, Iphigenia. She died. You survived. We have no record of another sister. You had one sister.’ An incidental consequence is that suddenly Cilissa, Orestes’ nurse who addressed Electra as ‘Orestes’ as she prayed by Agamemnon’s grave, no longer seems senile, but a necessary constant in the house. Appropriately, her actor, Annie Firbank (veteran of Carry on Nurse) takes the role of the sole Fury.

In Act Four, the court is played out overtly, though it is now clear that it has been proceeding throughout the play. Surprisingly, Icke does not temper or modernize Athene’s reasoning for her judgement: ‘In the practice of our lives, we favour men in all things […] it is appropriate that on behalf of this house of justice it is emphasised that men are favoured.’ The wording is careful: Athene is responding to practice, to custom. Calchas asks the audience to decide, silently, Orestes’ fate; I found the word that sat most comfortably in my head was ‘guilty’. Although I abhorred the punishment, I could find Orestes nothing but guilty.

There are some early references in the play to the multivalence of words (often involving the young Orestes, played on this occasion by Ilan Galkoff), sometimes the references are simplistic, but they serve to underscore the multiple possible interpretations of simple utterances. That the academic consultant on the production is Simon Goldhill is no surprise, as the final scenes echo his reading of the play: the court scenes explicitly reject the possibility of an unequivocal conclusion. And so the conclusion to the play was not transcendently harmonious, as I would have attempted, but abandoning us with consequences: Orestes alone, not knowing what to do. The Semnai Theai (the Furies in kindly guise who are enshrined at the heart of the city) are dealt with economically: Calchas says, ‘She is essential: the terror she holds keeps us from collapse’, and when Orestes calls her ‘pure – fury’, Klytemnestra (or her advocate) responds, ‘She’s kind’, with a disagreement about the power of the words used. Orestes ends this devastating performance repeating ‘What do I do?’ I head out, drained, and having lost a brolly in the theatre, to meet the impending tube strike.

Tony Harrison’s Oresteia

The Oresteia (Tony Harrison), BFI, 23 June 2012

This was a showing of the television recording of Tony Harrison’s famous Oresteia, directed by Peter Hall for the National Theatre in 1981, with music by Harrison Birtwistle. It was broadcast in its entirety on Channel 4 (UK) one Sunday evening in 1983. Take a moment to imagine that. My comments are interspersed with the recording as available on YouTube.

 

Agamemnon part 1

 

Agamemnon part 2

 

The Chorus’s masks are essentially identical, so at once the sense of collectivity predominates over individual psychology. One exception to the effacement of the individual is apparent to the modern viewer, as Tony Robinson’s Baldrick voice occasionally marks his lines out from the Chorus. Throughout the trilogy, in the close ups, it is clear that the actors’ lip movements behind the masks were rarely synchronised with the soundtrack. The film was assembled from three different performances, and it would seem that they kept a single soundtrack and matched the visuals separately. This was no distraction; I found that the Chorus members’ gesticulations, and the different angles of viewing the masks gave a surprising variety of expression in such static pieces. The camera also very effectively responded to Harrison Birtwistle’s score, often cutting to the rhythm.

Philip Donaghy’s Clytemnestra was certainly the most thrilling part: her scene with Agamemnon is a particularly gripping portrayal of shifting power dynamics. She is, of course, the only character to appear across all three plays, and in the first two is accompanied by a sinister leitmotif when she appears at the palace doors: when I noticed the repetition of this in Choephori, I was pathetically delighted. Although Donaghy’s voice was hardly feminine, he found a way to present Clytemnestra that I found totally convincing; at other times, however, the all-male cast’s playing of female characters could be incongruous. John Normington as Cassandra, though, hissed the traumatised and mantic words otototoi popoi da to great effect.

One thing that struck me particularly, especially after the previous week’s Agamemnon at the BFI (see below), was the Chorus’s uncertainty after Agamemnon’s death: this did not appear funny at all here. Harrison’s rhyming couplets gave the scene a pace which spoke of confusion, disarray, and perhaps impotent paralysis in the face of intimidation. And then Clytemnestra appears at the door once more with the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra.

 

Choephori

At the BFI presentation, there were two short intervals to separate the plays, and I’m not sure what has happened to my memory of the second play: perhaps because the first half of it is so static — a lot of talk between Orestes, Electra and the Chorus — it is easily overpowered by the other two.

 

Eumenides

So, the Eumenides: the Erinyes themselves surprised me: they were not at all horrifying, but immaculately white-faced, red-haired, black-clad punks. There was something quite attractive about them, with their hairy, blokeish legs. For the only time in the whole trilogy, did the male cast slip into what could be regarded as parodic female voices, when they chanted ‘Night! Night! Mother Night!’

At the temple of Athena (doubling as the Areopagus, site of the concluding court scene), there was both Athena’s statue, and then Athena herself. Her statue was huge and geometric, and Athena’s own costume designed along the same lines. The strange female-male position of Athena was signalled by the combination of her warrior’s garb and the stylised indication of breasts on her breastplate, like a Dalek.

There were a few chuckles in the NFT audience when the Erinyes began to accept Athena’s terms for peaceful incorporation into Athenian life: ‘What kind of shrine did you say I’d possess?’ It underscores the difficulty of presenting the conversion from pure spirits of vengeance to kindly, yet malevolent protectors of the city-state. Harrison and Hall’s conclusion redeemed any doubts. Athena’s processional escort covered the Erinyes’ fish-net outfits with noble red robes, and then turned to the National Theatre’s 1980s audience, telling them, ‘Stand and be silent while the Kind Ones pass’, before they made their way up the aisle. Sitting a little further away in space and time (from the NT in 1981 to the NFT in 2012), this was appropriately moving, especially after more than four hours in dark auditorium.