The Great Dionysian Festival: The Five Theban Plays
Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides
When London was awarded the 2012 Olympics George Eugeniou, the inspirational founder of Camden's Theatro Technis and its director for over half a century, had the idea of mounting a complete sequence of the five surviving Theban plays that tell the story of Oedipus and its aftermath as a contribution to the Cultural Olympiad comparable to that of ancient times. In the years since, he has mounted individual productions and now brings them together for a two week season coinciding with London 1912 Olympics.
Plays can be seen at individual performances over this two week season, but I caught them in their logical sequence as a "Theatre Marathon" beginning at noon and continuing until suppertime that will be repeated next Saturday, 12 August.
Beginning with Sophocles'' Oedipus King and Oedipus at Colonus, there is then Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes, followed by Euripides' The Phoenician Women and finally Sophocles' Antigone. Though Eugeniou has titled this last Antigone 2012, giving it a framing and an emphasis aimed to make connections with the current Greek situation, he omits the newsreel riots of its first presentation.
He is not a director who imposes concepts and this sequence is uncluttered by directorial indulgence but presents the ancient tragedies in a straightforward manner that aims at clarity of meaning. In fact he has tightened and simplified these productions, cutting the symbolic motifs which were part of their original décor to concentrate entirely on the actors. What becomes apparent seeing them together is the way in which Eva Galambosi's costumes become increasingly modern. They begin with ancient-looking tunics and sandals, have adopted trousers and boots for the men by the time we reach Seven Against Thebes and by Antigone we have smart business suiting.
There have been some cast replacements due to availability but George Eugeniou repeats his moving performance as the aged Oedipus at Colonus, playing in the original ancient Greek, this now linking much more smoothly with the rest of the text delivered in English.
Lithuanian Eimantas Minkelis is back as the younger Oedipus. His performance has developed since it was first seen two years ago. His king is easily roused to anger, absolutely consistent with the man who, insulted by being ordered out of the way of a chariot, killed the rider and his attendants and who literally rolls around in his anguish when it finally sinks in that he killed his father and the wife who has just hung herself was his mother. His phrasing now sounds much more natural but his accent is still often impenetrable. This is a problem with a number of these performers drawn from many countries: Germany, Spain and Venezuela as well as Greece and Britain. This performance space demands clear diction and though this cast move well and carry conviction they often take things at such a pace that meaning is carried more by osmosis than hearing.
Jackie Skarvellis is again playing Jocasta: a clear and intelligent performance that subtly changes to match the way the different writers have conceived her the authoritative red-robed figure of Aeschylus and the more humane mother of Euripides' concept, for in his version the Queen has not hanged herself but attempts to reconcile her warring sons.
David Middleton, returning as Creon, develops from the urbane brother-in-law of the first play to a more devious fellow in the second play and then the pragmatic politician of Antigone: a performance well matched to the space and finely spoken. Nikos Poursanidis is a strong Eteocles in The Phoenician Women as well as repeating his attractive Haemon, a good match to Tania Batzoglou's well-characterised Antigone, though even she is sometimes guilty of rushing the text.
Newcomers to the cast are Martin Head and Bruce Bailey who both play Tiresias, a remarkably consistent characterisation from both of them so that I didn't realise the split casting until consulting my programme. There is well-blended chorus work, the director offering very different ritual to match the changing productions style, though text is not always clearly delivered.
If a couple of performances don't quite come up to scratch it is not for want of energy and enthusiasm, I suspect just lack of experience; when you see an actor delivering lines walking backwards you know there's a problem and in productions as simple and direct as this an actor is totally exposed and it shows.
But that should not detract from this considerable achievement on very limited resources. It is a rare chance to catch these plays together and well worth snapping up any remaining seats for the final Marathon performance—there is wine and finger food supplied by a local restaurant provided between plays as part of your admission, or if they've sold out you can catch upon on your classical tragedy experience at individual performances.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton