Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Oresteia

Aeschylus
Theatre Lab Company
Riverside Studios

Orestes (Tobias Deacon) Credit: Anna Soderblom.
Apollo (George Siena) Credit: Anna Soderblom.
Clytemnestra (Claire Porter) and Aegisthus (Matthew Wade) Credit: Anna Soderblom.

All three plays of Aeschylus's trilogy are presented here trimmed to run in about two hours plus interval. This makes less of a demand on audiences than full versions such as Katie Mitchell's 1999 production of Ted Hughes's full text or Peter Hall's staging of Tony Harrison's translation (which could be seen all on the same day back in 1981) but it is inevitable that there are glories that are gone. Clever cutting has, however, succeeded in producing a tightened piece of drama without losing any essential elements of the story, which moves on at a considerable pace though still relishing the riches of the language.

The word tragedy comes from the Greek for "goat song" and music played an important part when these plays were originally performed in 458 BC, the choruses probably being danced and sung. Music makes an important contribution to Anastasia Revi's production, composed and played live by Daemonia Nymphe. This duo of Spyros Giasafakis and Evi Stergiou play a range of authentically reproduced ancient instruments such as the kitharis, lyre and varvitos as well as forms of percussion, providing a sonority that echoes fifth century Athens as well adding to the drama. But this production is in no way an attempt to recreate the style of a Periclean Dionysia; there are no masks or large chorus.

Designer Maria Konomis dresses it stylishly modern with a few antique touches and sets it on a green platform backed by a green wall across which runs a wide reflective silver stripe. There is no hieratic entrance point. Everyone must emerge around its sides but a sort of sentry box that hints at a classical skena can be pushed across the back becoming a moveable palace portal or shrine to house a goddess. That could be awkward, but director Anastasia Revi usually knows what she is doing when it comes to movement.

The audience is greeted by a stage already peopled with stationary figures, posed live waxworks until what could be a late member of the audience enters and disappears up the centre aisle, a cue for them to deliver a series of statements from individuals, quoting from the roles they play, which they repeat as an opening ritual before they leave and the play proper begins with Joe Robert Buckingham's Watchman kneeling centre stage, waiting as he has night upon night hoping for the sight of the beacon which will signal the Argives' return from Troy.

Like the barking dogs we can hear in the night around us, he delivers it full throttle, almost baying to the moon. A full bloodied start to a trilogy of plays that are steeped in gore as it follows the Atrides story of murders, human sacrifice and revenge killings through the generations. There is none of the classical restraint that kept such deeds offstage in ancient theatre. The back story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia to secure a favourable wind is not just retold by the chorus: Agamemnon speaks himself, we see the knife at his daughter's throat and when her mother Clytemnestra kills her returning father and his slave concubine, the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, it is in full view.

In the next play it is Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus we see slaughtered by her son Orestes, and in the third play we see him hounded by the Eumenides, the Furies, until his trial by the Athenians presided over by the goddess Athena. The god Apollo, on whose instructions Orestes says he acted, becomes his companion as well as his defender.

Director Revi brings Apollo to Agamemnon's grave to open the second play. It is he, instead of boyhood friend Pylades, who then accompanies Orestes as they watch sister Electra arrive with women to pour libations.

The story and the performances are sensational but given a stylised theatricality, full of striking images. As the libation bearers make their offering Apollo and Orestes gyrate in the background, the Eumenides crawl like a segmented snake to grasp Apollo's feet in supplication. Reinforcing it can sometimes distract from more important action, but as the action moves unbroken from the second play to the last we see the woman libation bearers transform themselves into the terrible Furies and when Orestes comes to trial he is penned by their red ropes in the dog with all those for and against him ranged on either side beneath the gaze of wise Athena.

It is strongly cast with Tobias Deacon and Laura Morgan as matched blonde siblings Orestes and Electra. A virile Agamemnon from Ryan Hurst gains our sympathy (perhaps this company might like to cast him in Euripides' Iphigenia) helped by Clare Porter's initially duplicitous playing of Clytemnestra. Matthew Wade is an exotic Aegisthus dressed with a slightly oriental touch (the Queen's attraction to him is clearly not just as an ally) but he spits out the venom of hatred. As the immortals, George Siena gives him an appropriate arrogant controlling confidence and Helen Bang makes Athena seem a pillar of wisdom and justice.

Though the Goddess's affirmation of male superiority and importance sticks in the craw today, she seems a fitting mentor for a world which is trying to establish the rule of law in place of violence. Aeschylus was optimistic!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton