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The Oresteia

Aeschylus, translated by Ted Hughes
Home Manchester
Home Manchester
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The only complete classical Greek trilogy still in existence, the Oresteia won writer Aeschylus the first prize at the Dionysus festival in 458 BC and, I seem to remember, was the first to ever be revived in ancient times, when plays were generally written only for a single performance.

It has been revived and adapted many times since, including this translation by Ted Hughes from 1999 used by director Blanche McIntyre for a "stripped back version" that condenses all three plays into 1¾ hours with no interval.

The story begins with King Agamemnon returning victorious to Argos from the Trojan Wars after ten years away. His wife, Clytemnestra, welcomes him bitterly, both because of his long absence and because he sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, to persuade the gods to allow him to set sail.

Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus conspire to murder Agamemnon, then the King's son, Orestes, kills his mother and Aegisthus. The Furies, deities who avenge injustice, are angered by the matricide, but the goddess Athene steps in to introduce the concept of trial by jury as a more just way of settling disputes than these chains of bloody vengeance. It really becomes a propaganda piece to celebrate the Athenian democratic system.

The programme refers to current conflicts such as Syria and the Arab Spring, but there is a world of difference between drawing vague parallels with something on the news half a world away and discussing current major political change in a theatre containing the whole of the city, including the top politicians and religious leaders, as would have been the case in Athens. We can never recreate that now.

The most outstanding aspect of this production is the design by Laura Hopkins. The production photos really don't do justice to this minimal but striking set with a floor of coal-black gravel—parted to reveal the red cloths (red carpet) for Agamemnon to walk on but resembling a river of blood—and a rear curtain of fine vertical chains which act like a gauze but create high vertical lines pointing to the gods. This is lit very effectively by Lee Curran.

The production itself doesn't live up to the visuals, unfortunately. For a stripped-back version, it feels at least twice as long as its running time. In classical Greek drama, all of the exciting stuff happens offstage and people come on to talk about it and discuss its implications at great length, which makes it a struggle for a modern audience when all of the references are to issues, people and events from more than two millennia ago. We get some help from the occasional explanation of who is whom from the chorus, but it isn't enough.

The chorus is a "community chorus", which allows the production to fill the stage up more than if everyone had to be paid but doesn't help with comprehension. This chorus speaks all of its lines in unison, which is very difficult to pull off for highly trained voice actors. Their words are often difficult to follow, and lines like "what was that? Someone's being murdered" and "Orestes killed his mother deliberately" sound faintly ridiculous when recited in a stilted monotone.

The chorus leaders, Daniel Millar and Ronke Adekoluejo, are much easier to follow when speaking alone, and at those times the story becomes much clearer. Simon Trinder does a great double-turn as Orestes and Aegisthus, Lyndsey Marshal is all anger and resentment as Clytemnestra, Gary Shelford is a thuggish Agamemnon plus Apollo and, for some reason, Orestes' sister Electra and Hedydd Dylan fills in every other part, for a lot of the time hanging from a swing high on the stage.

Certainly this is an ambitious production for Home, still in its infancy as a producing venue, but while visually impressive it was, for me, a long night that lost my attention early on and only regained it occasionally.

David Chadderton