The Persians

Aeschylus, in a new version by Kaite O'Reilly
National Theatre Wales
Cilieni Village, Brecon Beacons
(2010)

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From a distance, Cilieni is a small Welsh village like any other, set amidst acres of fields in the middle of nowhere. It pops up on the crest of a hill, idyllic in the evening sun. A huddle of buildings built out of breezeblocks, it has houses, a barn and a church. But it also has boarded up windows, blank gravestones and - oh yes - a smattering of burnt-out tanks. It is, you might have gathered, no ordinary settlement.

Cilieni is a mock village built during The Cold War to prepare soldiers for battle with the Soviets, and the setting for National Theatre Wales's extraordinarily powerful version of Aeschylus's The Persians. A retelling of the defeat of the Persian army against the Greeks, it is, as the first play in the Western canon, a pertinent choice for the young company. It's also remarkable for being written from the perspective of the defeated Persians. We walk through the surreal settlement before making our way to the main stage - a cutaway three-storey house with a giant videoscreen in its attic.

The play opens with the news of King Xerxes' catastrophic defeat yet to filter through to the Queen Mother, Atossa, who anxiously awaits news of the campaign. As reports are relayed to Atossa via videolink, the characters go through stages of fear, anger and grief. She summons the ghost of her dead husband for advice, who shares in her disbelief. By the time Xerxes arrives, the full extent of defeat is apparent, and fitful mourning has set in.

The plot of The Persians is simple, but the value of National Theatre Wales's production lies in Kaite O'Reilly's beautiful, lyrical version and Mike Pearson's innovative staging. Atmospherically, it's perfect: the haunting stillness of the site beneath a darkening sky can't be understated, and it compounds the sense of numb isolation of Atossa (a superb turn from Sian Thomas) and her aides, as well as the alien syntax of the characters' language.

Video screens suggest that this is war in the age of modern media, but it's an idea that doesn't entirely cohere, since much of the play's tension hinges on the suspense before the inevitable report of failure, as well as Xerxes's surprise entrance late in the play. There can be no rolling news feeds or early indication of defeat. The giant screen in the attic does, however, lend a remarkable Big Brother-esque significance to the ghost of Darius, played magnificently by Paul Rhys. Dead, but somehow alive; existing literally at the apex of society, his appearance is potent and foreboding.

Parallels to the War On Terror occasionally creep into view. "We live now in a time of terror. Danger lurks everywhere," remarks one of Atossa's aides. The weaponry of the Persians is much more technologically advanced than their enemies, and the incomprehension of defeat is a haunting reminder of the uncertainty of war, but in general Mike Pearson has avoided direct parallels with Iraq or Afghanistan. It's a play rich with allusion that resists overt contemporary parallels, all of which is to its credit. This is as close as theatre gets to transporting its audience into a parallel dimension, curiously familiar in so many ways; strangely alien in others.

As an immersive theatrical experience, The Persians is astonishingly effective. When darkness settles over the hills, the isolation of this site acquires a new significance: the eerie silence is the silence of scores of Persian dead. The blank gravestones belong to the nameless hundreds. It is National Theatre Wales's best yet: a living, breathing otherworldly experience.

Reviewer: Ben Bryant