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.

 

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.