Orestes: Blood and Light

Helen Edmundson, based on Euripides
Shared Experience
Oxford Playhouse
(2006)

Production photo

Helen Edmunson, who has adapted Euripides' Orestes, a rarely performed work in recent times, for Shared Experience, evidently does not hold the work in high regard. For in addition to the removal of the chorus, a key character and the God Apollo himself, she cheerfully admits in a programme note to using little if anything of the original text, dismissing it as "structurally flawed and tonally inconsistent".

Being unfamiliar with the play I am not easily able to say whether Edmunson has gone too far, or not far enough in this respect. Tonally, the play we see may be more consistent, but its singularity of pitch is ultimately wearing and indeed wears out its welcome well before the play's end 90 minutes later. The text does have a spare lyricism and rhythmic muscularity which echoes the work of Seamus Heaney, as when Electra, speaking of her dead mother, says: "I want to climb back inside her and settle down behind her heart", or, to her beloved brother, Orestes, "You are a warren of need - more holes than self".

It also benefits from some impassioned performances from the six-strong ensemble, notably from Jeffrey Kissoon as Tyndareos, Mairead McKinley as Electra and, after a hesitant start, Alex Robertson as Orestes. But it is that passion, or rather the unremitting nature of it, which is the problem. For while it initially impresses, the torrent rarely lets up and one soon feels, like the Bastard in King John, positively "bethumped". There is no sense ultimately of a journey being undertaken by Electra and Orestes.

We are already deep in blood as the play opens. Agamemnon has been murdered by his wife Klytemnestra and her lover in revenge for his sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, during the Trojan wars. In turn, Klytemnestra has been murdered by her son, Orestes, with the passive support of his sister, Electra. Orestes's claims that he was acting on the wishes of Apollo has cut little ice with the city authorities in Sparta and, despite the heinous nature of the crime he was avenging and his royal blood, he and his sister are marked for death and awaiting for confirmation of the sentence.

All the action takes place in one room in the royal palace apart from the rather clumsy dénouement. The sparse set is dominated by a large door which is bizarrely adorned with pairs of golden shoes. Dress is non-specific modern - Tyndareos sports a natty red three-piece suit and carries a cane, while the guards' fur hats and greatcoats suggest eastern Europe. A line of red-lit mannequins in the shadows, stage left and right, suggest the absent chorus. The design is by Niki Turner.

In the original play, Apollo comes down to earth and intervenes. His absence here casts doubt on Orestes' claims that his actions are divinely inspired and inevitably invites parallels with the behaviour of the 9/11 bombers and Bush. As the programme notes, Euripides was both a pacifist and freethinker who was writing at a time of war and rule by "mob government". Mercifully, Edmundson and director Nancy Meckler choose not to ram the point home.

The lesson, for this feels a didactic work, is that blood will have blood and that while patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, religion could well be the first. This is a strong production but one that is difficult to love.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Tricycle, Kilburn

Reviewer: Pete Wood