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.

 

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Antigone at the National Theatre

Antigone by Sophocles in a version by Don Taylor, directed by Polly Findlay. National Theatre, 2 June 2012

Antigone, cast homage to Obama et al. witnessing Bin Laden's deathThe stage resembles a 1980s European Cold War office, with further offices upstage partitioned by glass walls and doors. There is a portrait in the back of Creon’s office, but, despite the generally excellent sightlines in the Olivier Theatre, the identity of the portrait eluded me from my position. I guessed it was Creon himself, thus Christopher Eccleston, but my friend Tom suggested that David Tennant would be a more apt candidate. Eccleston’s fame is a principal selling point of this production, though Eccleston has excluded any mention of Dr Who, and his other big-money sci-fi jobs from his biography in the programme. It seems an unnecessary, even nervous, move, especially as he plays Creon with the same earnestness bordering on petulance that he dependably brings to all his roles. Book Eccleston, and you invariably get Eccleston. If, like me, you have warmed to his style, then this is no problem. Can he bring a vulnerability and righteousness to Creon, tyrant of Thebes who forbids the burial of Polynices, brother of Antigone and Ismene?

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.

A brief prologue recreates the photograph of Obama, Hillary Clinton, et al. monitoring the progress of the location and killing of Osama bin Laden. Striking an image it may be, but it is a little gratuitous perhaps: how seriously are we expected to draw parallels? Is Polynices a bin Laden figure to Creon? Polynices is denied burial for his attack on the city; bin Laden was said to have been given an appropriate burial. Is the parallel of Creon and Obama intended to cast Creon in a positive light? To give us some investment to sympathise with this unsympathetic character?

On stage, the assembled prologue group disperses into choreographed office bustle: the play’s Chorus is composed of functionaries, speaking singly. Eccleston’s Creon is even more the Blairite managerial ruler than that I’d seen in Oedipus at Colonus at Theatro Technis in January. All these contemporary moves may bring the drama closer to home, but it also keeps the tone decidedly flat. Creon’s early encounter with his son Haemon, betrothed to the rebel Antigone is a fine example of this: the stakes could not have felt lower, as if they were discussing staplers. It finally came alive for me with the entrance of Teiresias (Jamie Ballard): lights flared and flickered before his arrival, perhaps indicating Antigone’s death, but certainly heralding the arrival of something beyond the quotidian, even the activity of the numinous. It is a problem many modern productions have: how to present divinity – which is so crucial to understanding of Greek tragedy – to a secular audience. Famously, the conflict in Antigone is between the heroine’s devotion to her brother, and the ruler’s unwavering adherance to the dictates of the state. But the gods are operating in each corner: the unburied Polynices is an abhorrant religious pollution, yet as his treacherous body would pollute the ground too. Without an understanding of the religious importance of the polis, the city state, Creon is no more than a tyrant. On her highly entertaining and politically engaged blog, Edith Hall has reviewed this production and judges that Creon is not portrayed tyrannically enough! I am uneasy about the idea that explicitly linking tyranny in Thebes with – in Hall’s example – present tyranny and massacre in Syria would help the audience challenge any assumptions; rather than simply reinforcing comfortable liberal view that massacres are bad. That said, I would join her call for a more coherent understanding of the political urgency that lies in these ancient texts. Before I read Hall’s blog, I had suggested that, for the audience to understand Creon, the state that he defends should be presented less as an Obamo-Blairite governmental consultancy, and more akin to a state structure that is worth defending. The welfare state? The NHS? Creon as overworked casualty doctor? Well, that’s an idea that needs a lot of work, but it would open a space for a political mechanism worth defending, and could fruitfully complicate the argument of the play.

Politically disengaged it may be, but we do witness some effective checking-off against Aristotle’s expectations for tragedy, with harmartia, anagnoresis, and peripeteia in evidence in the character of Creon. With Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice dead at the end of the play, Creon is utterly destroyed – a portrait of desolation. At the close, Eccleston wiped his bloody hand on the wall of the rotating set: a petulant move that seemed somehow jarring with Creon’s present state, but completely in Eccleston’s character.