Agamemnon

Aeschylus
University of Oxford Classical Drama Society
Oxford Playhouse
(2008)

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Every three years Oxford University's Classical Drama Society produces a classical play performed in ancient Greek. It has been doing so since 1880 when this same play launched the performance career of actor-manager Frank Benson (who played Clytemnestra) and gained student drama official University support. Agamemnon is the story of the murder of a king on his return from the Trojan War, killed by his wife in revenge for his sacrificing their daughter. It is a play which is considered the bedrock of tragic drama.

In Benson's day classical languages were an expected component of a scholar's education but I would doubt whether many of the young people bussed in to the matinee I saw knew ancient Greek. If they did then this production's carefully articulated delivery of the text would have helped their understanding, but if they lacked Greek there was no problem, for there were surtitles to help them.

The careful speaking tended to slow down the playing which almost ground to a halt when the rhythmic musical accompaniment of Tim Benjamin's specially written score was introduced. Director Claire Catenaccio had chosen to follow what is widely believed to have been the original form with the chorus speeches being sung and danced. Pleasing though his musical settings are they are more closely related to medieval plainchant than musical expression of the feelings and concerns of the people and are largely intoned with the male singers ranged in a row across the stage while a group of female dancers perform light-footed choreography in front of them. The dancing rarely has any relation to the text, except when a dancer holds a cloth to suggest the sails of the Greek fleet at Aulis or another places a kerchief over her head to stand in for the beautiful Helen whose elopement with Trojan Paris sparked off the Trojan War. Pace is not helped by a conductor who waits until everything has halted before beginning any piece of music rather than allowing it to blend into the dramatic shape of the play.

The watchman, who opens the play on look out for a beacon to signal the fall of Troy, has been sitting up on shelf above the band for some time before the play begins, but, rather than focussing on his opening lines we have a musical introduction and then a pause before his speech. Barney Norris delivers it freshly, every piece of information carefully marked, which concentrates the attention and allows the audience to become accustomed to (for most) an unfamiliar tongue and to recognize the sound and cadences of the verse. This is fine at first - but with the rest of the performance at much the same pace and the soporific chanting of the chorus this sometimes became more lullaby than riveting tragedy, quite a lot of heads were nodding off at its repetitive monotony.

Josh Randall's design is simple and stark, black drapes with bright red doors centre stage above a series of steps reflecting the arrangement of the skene of a Greek theatre, costumes clearly identified the main protagonists, with Clytemnestra in gold trimmed red, but the chorus all in a uniform black, including kerchiefs covering their heads, which does not give them much presence when seen against a black background.

The production follows classical usage by giving all its performers masks, designed by Helen Damon. In large Greek theatres this made faces visible, perhaps had some acoustic effect and helped distinguish the different characters the all male performers were playing. Of course, in a small theatre they are not necessary but they do hide the youth of the performers and more importantly dictate a particular approach to playing, which may give some idea of what acting may have been like in the 5th century BC. Certainly the chorus half masks make them into moustachioed old men as the elders of Mycenae, though why the women's chorus should be given aged masks seemed odd - all the young men may have gone to fight but the young women stayed at home and these faces looked incongruous when they began to skip around like girls.

The protagonist's full masks, their paler faces easier to light, were much more effective and Catenaccio and her cast show full awareness of the effectiveness of small head movements and the need for strong hieratic gestures to express the emotion and match the delivery of the text. Raymond Blenkenhorn is particularly effective in his speech announcing the homecoming of Agamemnon, integrating an almost baroque physical presentation into his performance, while Tom Mackenzie's Agamemnon, if physically a little less fluent, brings a less artificial feeling to his delivery. An elegant costume and the pale hauteur of her mask give Emma Pearce's Clytemnestra an authority which makes up for a less highly-charged performance that gives little idea of the traumas this woman has experienced.

A play that has almost no dramatic action, in which almost everything is reported rather than seen, demands extremely powerful playing that this production rarely provides. What it does give is a glimpse of what 5th century BC acting may have been like. It is not an attempt at an exact reproduction, that would be impossible in an indoor theatre that bears no relation to a Greek one, but it gives flesh to conjectural ideas that make it very interesting.

Until 18th October 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton