Monday, October 24, 2005


Euripides' Orestes, Oxford Playhouse
Performance seen: Saturday 15th October (evening)

As a rule (as I've probably said in this blog before) I don't have high expectations of student performances of Greek tragedy. Undergraduate actors can often lack the necessary emotional maturity to cope with the texts, and there can be a slightly amateurish sense to proceedings.

Every so often, however, I encounter a student production that blows all my preconceptions out of the water. The Oxford University Classical Drama Society's staging of Euripides' Orestes, in the original Greek, is one such. One or two minor points aside, it looks like a professional staging (partly due to the involvement in the crew of people with considerable theatrical experience), and is one of the best productions of Greek tragedy I've seen. Certainly it stands favourable comparison with the RSC's recent London production of Hecuba.*

Orestes is rarely seen, being rather over-shadowed by Aeschylus' Oresteia, which Euripides clearly had in mind when he was writing. The action of Orestes takes place between the second and third plays of the earlier trilogy, and explicitly refers to the famous trial in Eumenides. The characterization of Orestes and his friend and companion Pylades clearly riffs off how they appear in Aeschylus. And, as one of my fellow theatre-goers pointed out, a line where Orestes praises Electra for being a woman with a man's heart echoes a line in Agamemnon where the same quality is thrown at Clytemnestra as an insult (clearer in Morshead's "She in whose woman's breast beats heart of man" than in Browning's near-incomprehensible "The man's-way-planning hoping heart of woman").

There is much else of interest. A work of Euripides' old age, Orestes is the last play that survives which was written before he left Athens (Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis were composed in Macedon). It may be a four-actor play.** It has the most sympathetic of Euripides' five portrayals of the Spartan king Menelaus, a character who clearly fascinated him.

It is also the most extreme expression of the deus ex machina that was a noted feature of Euripides' work, whereby conflict is resolved by divine intervention. At the end of the play Orestes and Pylades have murdered Helen, are threatening the life of her daughter Hermione, and have set fire to Agamemnon's palace. Menelaus is raising the population of Argos to storm the building. Just about everyone is going to die, and nothing can avert that. Only the intervention of the god Apollo can restore the characters' destinies to what the audience knows them to be. It's a ridiculous rabbit-out-of-the-hat moment, and is of course meant to be - Euripides is mocking easy solutions and those who proffer them.

As noted, this production is in the original Greek, with English surtitles giving an abridged version of the dialogue, a fairly recent innovation at Greek plays of which I thoroughly approve, as it increases the audience's ability to follow the action (even if, like me, you were so close to the front of the auditorium that it was a bit of a strain to look up from the action on stage to the surtitles). The text itself has been trimmed a bit - a couple of interjections by the Chorus into dialogue between actors appeared to have been lost, and the second half of the Phrygian Slave's scene, his confrontation with Orestes, has been wholly excised. None of these cuts harm the play as a whole. (Also, mischievously, a reference was included in the surtitles to the loss of a bottle of oil, alluding to Aristophanes' send-up of Euripides' style in Frogs, where he demonstrates how many of Euripides' prologues can be ended with 'lost his little bottle of oil'. As far as I know, that line is not actually in Orestes, nor indeed anywhere else in Euripides' extant writings.)

The first thing that impresses one about the Oxford production is the set design. The action is transferred from Argos, where the tragedians placed Agamemnon, back to his Homeric location of Mycenae, which is where a modern audience automatically associates with him. The set is made to look like Mycenae's ruins, because, as director Pippa Needs says in the programme, "the way in which we all interpret these relics says as much, if not more, about us today as ... about the ancient Greeks." It also conjures up, deliberately or not, the spirit of Michael Cacoyannis' films of Euripides (Electra, Trojan Women, and Iphigenia at Aulis). The set is cleverly lit, with the lighting changing to reflect the mood of the action.

Then there is the acting. Rose Heiney's Electra makes the language emote. Matt Trueman as Orestes takes the character from a tortured soul who has the audience's sympathies to an out-of-control paranoiac who rails at anyone who frustrates his wishes (the point at which this is made clear to the audience is a scene which appears at first redundant, where Orestes explains to Pylades the action of the first half of the play - the point is that Orestes' version of events is so far removed from what has been seen that it signals his disconnection with reality). Alex Kalderimis gives us a Pylades clearly more interested in Orestes than Electra, and carries well the moment that he goes beyond the loyal friend to psychopathic killer (one of few moments that elicit laughter from the audience, but this is in reaction to the text in the surtitles, not to Kalderimis' performance). Sheridan Edwards invests the Phrygian Slave with both comedy and dignity. Best of all is Himanshu Ojha as Menelaus. Clad as an eastern prince (presumably a deliberate visual echo of Tyndareus' accusation that Menelaus has 'gone native' after a decade in Troy), this is a Menelaus worth watching even when he isn't speaking - through facial expression Ojha tells us much about the thought processes going on in Menelaus' head. He also doubles up as the Messenger without making it too obvious to the audience that it is the same actor.

It is to the credit of speech coach Ben Cartlidge that this production is never hurt by the typical curse of Greek plays, cast members who appear to be reciting their lines with no real idea of the meaning of what they are saying; instead everyone conveys an awareness of both the literal and emotional content of the text (though occasionally a line gets forgotten). It's a pity, then, that Cartlidge's own performance as Apollo seems rather stilted, though, as the same companion said, it could be argued that this is deliberately emphasizing the artificiality of the deus ex machina ending.

One might find fault with some of the other performances. After a strong start, Heiney is a little single-level in the second act, shunning opportunities to vary her tone. Guy Westwood is visibly too young and lacks enough gravitas in his voice to fully carry off Tyndareus (one of the moments where the student nature of the production shows through). But it should be emphasized that these are merely moments of actors being less good than others in the production - overall, the standard of acting is high.

The Chorus rightly blend movement and music in measured proportion. Again, the music is often reminiscent of Cacoyannis and his use of traditional Greek music, but other influences, such as from the European classical tradition are allowed, particularly in the second act. Impressively, the production attempts arias for the actors as well as choral songs. These were an integral part of the original performance, but are often difficult to carry off with a modern audience. This production gives Electra a sung lament, and the Phrygian Slave's conversation with the Chorus is conducted part spoken, part sung, almost like Gilbert and Sullivan. Both of these work, and rather better than the attempts at the same approach in the RSC's Hecuba, where Vanessa Redgrave's (lack of a) singing voice imposed severe limitations.

A great deal of thought has gone into this production - this is emphasized by a moment noted by another companion, Dr Penny Goodman, where Orestes pleads with Menelaus in a pose of supplication taken from Greek vase painting, clasping Menelaus' knees and beard. The result is a bold, imaginative and high quality production, that all involved can be proud of.

* I got halfway through writing a blog entry about that production, but never finished it. To quickly summarize, I thought it was an interesting production rather let down by a muted performance by Vanessa Redgrave in the title role.

** Early on in the play Helen calls her daughter Hermione on stage to instruct her in making an offering at Clytemnestra's tomb. Two other actors apart from Helen are already on stage, as Electra and Orestes (though the latter has yet to speak). Hermione says nothing at this point, but does when she returns on stage later on. So either the role was meant to be played in the first scene by one of the non-speaking performers who often took the roles of slaves or children (such as Oedipus' daughters at the end of Oedipus the King), and only later played by one of the actors - which would be perfectly possible in a masked production - or there was a fourth actor who played Hermione. Given that Sophocles appears to be doing something similar at the end of Oedipus at Colonus (where either there are four actors or the role of Ismene is split between two), I like to think that towards the end of the fifth century the tragedians were experimenting with going beyond the rigid three-actor format.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

It's Pippa. Glad you enjoyed the play. Also pleased you got the nod to Cacoyannis; no one else has! And Apollo really was meant to be stilted, I promise- Ben is really a fantastic actor. But I'm glad it caused some confusion, it was meant to be uncomfortable.
Hope that helps!
Pippa xx

Tony Keen said...

Pippa, Thanks for the comment, and thanks to you and your cast and crew for all the hard work put into the production - as I said, very impressive.