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Prometheus Bound

Aeschylus, in a new translation by James Kerr
Sound, London
(2005)

David Oyelowo in Prometheus Bound

The last time a play of this title was seen in London was in 1971, when Kenneth Haigh played the luckless outsider Prometheus, chained to a rocky crag in the Caucasus. Then it was an Off-Broadway version of the Aeschylus tragedy by Pulitzer prize-winning poet Robert Lowell.

But for this powerful new staging director James Kerr has gone back to the Greek original with his own unassertively modern verse translation, a rich, accessible text that revels in glorious Aeschylean metaphors such as the “countless chuckles of the waves of the sea.” Although it might help were the programme to carry background notes to open up an unfamiliar text.

So why is the play almost never revived?

I suspect the answer is not lack of audience interest, but the difficulty in finding a first-class verse speaker prepared to spend an hour or more draped in heavy chains and restraining manacles, while putting his voice, heart and soul into an heroic, gut-wrenching portrayal of Prometheus.

Such an actor is David Oyelowo, not only one of our best black performers with a godlike muscular physique, but also a gifted classical actor who won his spurs as the RSC’s Henry VI, a marathon performance at the Young Vic in 2001, while also attracting a popular following as Danny in the BBC’s spy series Spooks.

Here his immaculate diction, range and vocal style recall the glory days of Olivier at the Vic, carrying us through even the most difficult passages of this rarely seen Greek tragedy, playing the ousted Titan who flings back defiance at Zeus for ordering this bizarre punishment for his ‘disobedience’ in bringing the gifts of fire, arts and science to mankind.

But this is not just a one-man show. Veteran actor Brian Poyser makes an engrossing figure as the anxious first torturer, a technician acting under orders as he fixes the manacles and plunges a bolt into Prometheus’s chest; then returning as the well-intentioned Oceanus urging Prometheus to temper his rage for fear of worse to come.

Michael Dixon also doubles, first chirpily as a sort of Greek gods’ squaddie; later turning up as a smart-alec messenger Hermes with a warning from Zeus to tone down the rant or face the prospect of ever more severe punishments.

Fourth principal is Hayley Atwell who plays the half-crazed Io, a mortal maiden fancied by Zeus, but now packed off into the wilderness by Zeus’s jealous wife Hera. Transmogrified into a heifer and pursued by the unrelenting stings of a gadfly, the actress makes us respond to the anguish without for a moment inviting a chuckle at her bandaged hands turned into useless cloven hoofs.

In fact the only weakness in Kerr’s otherwise compelling production is a gorgeous, ten-strong chorus of barefoot actresses in little black dresses, who play the consoling Oceanides, but have been selected more for their youthful beauty and vocal charms, than an ability to speak lines with meaning — although, to be fair, this could quickly improve as the run continues and they grow in confidence.

The 80-minute show is third hit in a row for this newly opened studio venue, just off Leicester Square. And with a top price ticket of £15 it becomes a potential rival to the Donmar as a place to find demanding entertainment in the West End.

Reviewer: John Thaxter