The Oresteia

Adapted by James Wilkes and Dominic Allen from Aeschylus' trilogy

Belt Up (nothing to see/hear)

York Theatre Royal Studio

(2008)

Review by J. D. Atkinson

Adapting Aeschylus' trilogy into a single sub-two hour performance may seem audacious, but the latest production from the youthful Belt Up company certainly succeeded, for the most part, in distilling the central drama of the original into a compelling narrative. However, the Chorus, a trio of sinister undertakers in top hats and John Lennon sunglasses, checking fob watches and directing morbidly comical ad libs at stragglers amongst the audience, set a misleading tone for a performance which steered clear of the aggressive 'immersiveness' for which this York-based ensemble has become known.

As the three leapt into a well (verbally-)choreographed introduction, taking on the male roles of the play as the narrative demanded, the breakneck pace demanded by the compression of the epic structure was quickly attained. In fact, the pace was occasionally all too demanding, and a potentially entertaining song and dance number cheesily outlining Aegisthus' absurdly troubled family background fell flat due to the singers' inability to hold a tune, and the difficulty for the audience of following the overly speedy exposition. Other directorial flourishes were effective, if nothing terribly original. The use of a three-woman puppet to represent the babbling prophetess Cassandra was particularly well-executed, with the choric performers smoothly creating a single, startling entity.

To audience members with experience of any of the company's previous productions, actors quickly fell into types which seemed overly familiar. But the ensemble's performances were, on the whole, strong, with a few deserving of particular praise. Clytemnestra was a devastating, powerful presence, a well-cast match for the equally impressive Agamemnon. The latter's return, victorious, from Troy, wearing stilts and towering over his wife and a Chorus of puppet onlookers, was an early high-point of the production, with the couple's sparring neatly but unobtrusively pierced by occasional moments of humour. This stand-out pair were both able to turn on an emotional sixpence, and the direction, here, should also be commended. Other actors seemed less emotionally engaged or engaging, with a series of comedy yokel accents failing to obviate the need for sympathetic characters. The climactic courtroom drama produced the play's other memorable pairing, with Athena and Apollo both memorably embodied by actors who failed, elsewhere, to find sufficient substance in this adaptation.

Frustratingly, the crucial figure of Orestes, tossed about by the Furies, came across as too prissy and ineffectual to perform the hero's role, no matter how reluctant or compelled by Fate. And the dance-like interlude between Orestes and the Furies also failed to impress, with a series of repetitious physical collisions reminiscent of a contact improvisation which should not have progressed beyond the rehearsal room. The showdown between the estranged son and his murderous mother Clytemnestra had effective, almost spine-chilling moments, such as her revelation that she recognised him from the moment she saw him, but her death was sadly drawn-out, the script failing to deliver much in the way of new information once we had gathered the logic and inevitability of her death, and her justification for murdering Agamemnon. The closing scenes, once Orestes has been acquitted in Athena's court, likewise outstayed their welcome, with the writing lapsing occasionally into trite Disney-isms ("I've got to go and find my sister. She's been alone too long"), where earlier it had reached highs of concision and impact.

James Wilkes and Dominic Allen's adaptation should be commended in its ambitious modernising of the trilogy, although it feels uneven and overlong at several points. Were they to rework the final scenes and one or two earlier moments, the script could well serve as a fine, surprisingly faithful and extremely lively introduction to the stories. Incredibly, the adaptation is incisive enough in parts to cause frustration with its excessive length in other scenes, and this compression of three plays into one would be improved by slicing fifteen minutes from its running time. The production, too, while not including any weak performances, certainly fluctuated between moments of both individual and ensemble excellence, and more self-indulgent student theatre clichés. An ambitious take on an epic story, then, which slightly lacked the courage of its convictions.