Orestes - Blood and Light

Helen Edmundson, based on Euripides
Shared Experience
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn
(2006)

Production photo

This 100 minute drama lives up to its subtitle but is a rather strange venture for Shared Experience. The director may be Nancy Meckler but the style is far less physical than one normally expects to this company.

However, thanks to designer Niki Turner, there is some impressive spectacle. The action takes place on a burnished gold circle with two significant props a bed and a 20 ft-high door, once again in gold and embellished with 13 (surely significant) rows of golden shoes. The action is observed by a life-size terracotta army that might easily have been borrowed from an Anthony Gormley exhibition.

Even more so than in most Greek tragedies, this tale harks back to the past. The action takes place in the bed chamber of the dead Clytemnestra, killed by her children Electra and Orestes as a punishment for her murder of their father, Agamemnon.

The play is like a trial, judging the morals of the matricides as in turn, a series of relations come to hear their story and superimpose it on to their own version.

Thus, Clara Onyemere as Helen, the beautiful cause of all the trouble, preens herself in front of her drab niece, Electra; Tim Chipping as Uncle Menelaos prevaricates; and the pair's white-haired grandfather Tyndareos, played by Jeffery Kissoon, shows considerable, if cowardly firmness in rejecting their pleas for clemency for political reasons of his own.

Mairead McKinley with her throaty Northern Irish accent gives the performance of the night as he infinitely pessimistic Electra, to the extent that one begins to wonder whether the play might better have been named after her rather than her brother. Had the author not chosen to write a play even more closely centred on her tragedy, perhaps it would have been.

Orestes, played by Alex Robertson, is an ineffectual man, prone to bouts of hallucination and other manifestations of madness, suggesting that he was likely to have been a follower in the plot against his mother rather than its leader.

He comes into his own up when, having negotiated with his uncle, he returns to the bedroom-cum-prison cell with a pair of knives and the promise of a suicide pact.

However, this is Greek tragedy and more blood is required to oil the wheels that allow this play to reach a finale that is suitably spectacular thanks to some final fireworks, courtesy of Niki Turner.

Helen Edmundson has chosen Euripides' version of this story rather than the more commonly performed Aeschylus' Oresteia. Her translation uses hard-edged modern language that suitably complements the brutality of the subject-matter.

Nancy Meckler's production is at its best when Mairead McKinley delivers two powerful monologues that set out Electra's justification for murder. At times though, it begins to plod even though the running time is only around 100 minutes. This is largely because a rather wimpish Orestes is no match for his brave sister.

Go and see it though, for Miss McKinley's soul-searching performance.

Pete Wood reviewed this production at the Oxford Playhouse

Reviewer: Philip Fisher