Greek plays at the BFI

The Serpent Son: Agamemnon + Of Mycenae and Men, BFI, 19 June 2012

ca. 1978, London, England, UK --- Helen Mirren as Kassandra and Diana Rigg as Clytemnestra in a scene from a 1970's production of Aeschylus's Greek tragedy The Oresteia. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
Helen Mirren as Kassandra and Diana Rigg as Klytemnestra.

The Serpent Son was the title given to the production of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, broadcast on BBC2, 7 March 1979. Agamemnon, the first part, was presented thirty-three years later in the wonderful Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen season at the BFI (formerly National Film Theatre). It would have been nice to see the other two plays in the series, not least to see Billie Whitelaw leading the chorus in the Choephoroi (here retitled Grave Gifts). Today, though, Agamemnon was paired with its light-hearted companion, Of Mycenae and Men. The films were introduced briefly by the season’s curator, Amanda Wrigley, who has comprehensively covered the production on the Screen Plays blog. Dr Wrigley somewhat cautiously suggested that we might – unintentionally – find the tragedy funny, and the comedy not so. There was certainly some basis for this, but I feared that this warning would skew the audience’s natural response; in 2004, I saw Polanski’s The Tenant at the NFT, and members of the audience — seemingly not knowing how to react to the film — took the cue from the occasional absurdist moment (and perhaps following the suggestion in the programme notes of moments of comedy), and laughed loudly at some of the most tense and unsettling scenes. Thankfully, this was not the case today. The phallic omphalos is, to be sure, a little over the top, but it was a nice effect to have Apollo appear superimposed on/from it: enforcing the connection between him and the land at Delphi. We see Apollo and the omphalos first, because an explanatory prologue is appended to the start, featuring Orestes (Anton Lesser) with Apollo (John Nolan) at Delphi, the former learning about his father’s fate. The Chorus’s recollection of the events up to Iphigeneia’s sacrifice is incorporated into this as a flashback, so we see Iphigeneia (Oona Kirsch) pleading, being gagged, and suspended upside down, alongside a further flashback to illustrate the chorus’s memory of her singing at Agamemnon’s feasts. It also shows us Agamemnon (Denis Quilley) and Menelaus dressed in matching eagle outfits, underscoring the connection between the Atreidae and the origin of Artemis’ anger (in Aeschylus’ text, two eagles eviscerate a pregnant hare); furthermore, we see Kalchas (Patrick Magee) examining the hare’s entrails.

The noted costume design by Barbara Kidd, former (and current) designer for Doctor Who, went well with the music by Humphrey Searle. Searle also had form with Doctor Who and composed the music for The Haunting; it certainly had that mid-seventies BBC science fiction spooky woodwind, of the sort that memorably accompanied Tom Baker in his prime, but it came over so loud on the NFT speakers that it occasionally drowned out the actors. The chorus members wore shabby costumes and colourful, faux-tribal face make-up, their odes supplemented at times by the ‘Ambrosian Singers’ on the soundtrack.

A few moments made strong impressions on me. First was the tapestry scene. Agamemnon arrives in his eagle outfit, in better humour than I’ve seen him in other versions. Klytemnestra’s ‘over-long’ speech is, here, simply ‘long’ like his absence, and gently chided for being more fitting for a god; the chorus’s reservations about his war-lust he agrees with indulgently too. Most gripping, though, was the exchange between Klytemnestra (Diana Rigg) and Agamemnon. Klytemnestra’s costume – like Agamemnon’s – allies her with a signature animal: not dog, as I’d be tempted to do, but the snake. Serpents encircle her breasts and protrude from her mantle, and a strip of face paint makes a band for her eyes. In comparison, Agamemnon is decidedly dowdy once he removes his helmet and cape. Still, while, for example, in the Peter Hall / Tony Harrison Oresteia, Agamemnon consents somewhat derisively to tread the tapestries, here it comes across as a seduction. Klytemnestra moves in close and speaks softly to Agamemnon, who consents to this act for her, and we can well believe it: he is flattered into strutting up the catwalk, a macho gesture, lustfully to impress his wife. His wife is Diana Rigg.

Helen Mirren’s Kassandra breaks her silence with some sharp shrieks, but is soon ranging over the set with confrontational self-possession, laughing darkly at the predicament with which Apollo punished her. Whatever sense we have of Kassandra’s being an orphan violently wrenched from her destroyed home is somewhat compromised by the costume and direction. She is dressed in black PVC. Taking the cue from this presentation, the chorus bawdily enjoys her tale of feeling Apollo’s ‘heat upon’ her, before she ‘tricked’ him.

Diana Dors as Helen of Troy
Diana Dors as Helen of Troy

This version uses extra scenes, and shows us Agamemnon’s bath. Klytemnestra kisses the blade after the murder, and she spends the rest of the scene with a broad blood-stain on her face. The Chorus’ deliberations upon hearing Agamemnon’s death cries are played for laughs: old men debating due process, but this is contrasted with the later threat of battle between the chorus and Aegisthus’ forces: here it is the young, manly Herald of Agamemnon’s army (Nickolas Grace) who leads the call for attack against Aegisthus – a more plausible combatant than the old men of Aeschylus’ version. Aegisthus himself (Terence Hardiman) wears a bizarre costume with great gold protuberances.

This evening’s second film, Of Mycenae and Men — an attempt at creating a substitute Satyr play to accompany the trilogy — stretched one joke extremely thinly: Helen finds Menelaus a bore, and wishes she was back with Paris. The comedy as a whole serves as a reminder of the limits of women’s roles in television comedy in the 1970s, down to the baffling inclusion of a histrionic Swedish au pair. Contrary to the caveat delivered at the start of proceedings, lots of people in the auditorium laughed loudly throughout. I may have tittered once. Still, Bob Hoskins’s housekeeper does the best he can with the material, and Diana Dors somehow seems the perfect choice for Helen.