Sunday, September 18, 2005

Prometheus Bound

Prometheus Bound, in a new translation by James Kerr
Sound Theatre, London
Performance seen: 6th September 2005

Prometheus Bound is an odd play. It is preserved in a collection of the works of Aeschylus, but it may have actually been written by his son Euphorion. It is commonly thought to be the first play in a trilogy, but there is a case for it being the second.[1] If by Aeschylus, it is a late work, yet only uses two actors, neglecting the third which Sophocles had introduced and which Aeschylus himself employed in the Oresteia.[2] As the text stands, it seems to imply considerable use of stage machinery - and for that reason some scholars would pronounce these passages inauthentic. The play has the ultimate messenger speech when the messenger-god Hermes appears; yet Hermes comes not to impart information, but in an unsuccessful attempt to gather it.

Little actually happens in Prometheus Bound. Once Prometheus is chained to his rock at the opening, he spends the rest of the play telling stories, of one sort or another, to a series of visitors - the Chorus of Oceanids, Oceanus himself, Io and finally Hermes. Throughout the play, Prometheus is on stage, never able to leave (another unusual feature of the play). It is positively Beckett-like, and I thought that before reading Michael Billington's review in The Guardian, where the same point is made. The dark and stark staging of the Sound Theatre's production suggests that they had thought of the comparison too.

Kerr's new translation was worked out in performance with his lead, David Oyelowo. For a translation worked on for its stageability, it seems quite close to the Greek, closer than, say, the late Don Taylor's early eighties adaptations of Sophocles and Euripides.

The Chorus are comprised of actors either fresh out of or still in drama school. This gives an air of the student production to their contribution, and they giggle more than seems appropriate. But it must be said that they execute well some complicated interlocking polyphony during one of the late choral odes, and the use of music in the choruses is in general well-done. Billington mentions the 'sexy slips' that the Chorus are wearing; it seems that the production meant that feature not to be noticed, as the Chorus are dimly lit almost throughout the play, and spend much of it hiding in the wings or amongst the audience.

The other supporting cast are certainly competent enough, though casting to have regional accents speaking classical verse was radical in the 1970s, but a bit old hat now. However, the doubling of the roles of Hephaestus and Oceanus does not work, as they are too obviously the same person. Multiple roles played by the same actor is becoming something of a vogue in the mounting of Greek tragedy these days, but too often ignores the fact that the Greeks made this work through mask and costume. The approach can succeed in modern productions - the recent RSC Hecuba had the same actor in the roles of Polymestor and Odysseus, distinguishing the two through costume, hair styling and performance (in particular accent). Costume alone appeared to be the approach of the Sound Theatre's Prometheus Bound. This works with the doubling of Force and Io, as Force is a non-speaking role, and does not draw the attention of the audience. It almost works with Power and Hermes, as they are respectively at the very beginning and very end of the play (but as both are mouthpieces for Zeus, a cleverer move might have been to combine the roles). But Hephaestus and Oceanus appear in too quick succession. (In the original masked production, Hephaestus was probably doubled with Prometheus, with the second actor taking all the other speaking roles.)

In the end this is a play which stands or falls on the portrayal of Prometheus himself, the one character onstage from beginning to end. Prometheus is the victim, yet he is not always one who engages the audience's sympathies. He is arrogant and self-righteous, in comparison to the much more easy-going and likeable Oceanus. But Prometheus is also right, and Oceanus is wrong, because Prometheus makes a stand against the new tyranny of Zeus (though - Hermes apart - Zeus' side of the dispute is not really put in the play). Billington in his Guardian piece suggests that Prometheus gives in to despair and suffering. This is surely incorrect - Prometheus is in pain, and is momentarily overwhelmed by it, but his foreknowledge has prepared him for the agony, and provides him with the certainty, not just the hope, that eventually he will be released. It is this knowledge of what is to come that fuels his arrogance.

It is not an easy role to essay, made harder by the fact that the actor is likely to be restrained, and denied freedom of movement (rather like Beckett's Winnie in Happy Days, who spends the whole play buried in a mound of earth). David Oyelowo, whose performance has been critically acclaimed, makes it all harder for himself by performing with his eyes closed right up until the very last moment before the lights fade. I'm not quite sure what this is meant to symbolize (perhaps that Prometheus doesn't need his eyes to see things clearly, or that he is slowly waking up throughout the play), but it's undeniably a striking visual image. Oyelowo's Prometheus is dragged on stage in a state of almost epileptic near-catatonia, twitching and moaning as he is chained to the rock (as good a means of any as dealing with Prometheus' silence in the opening scene). There is then five minutes of bestial shrieking and screaming as Prometheus struggles futilely against the pain and his bondage, before he actually begins to speak. At first, it's not quite clear what the fuss over Oyelowo. His performance is good, but not one that immediately looks like it will remain in ones memory. But Oyelowo gradually warms into his performance, and by the final scene, as a bound Prometheus shows that he is free in spirit, and the physically-unrestrained Hermes bonded in servitude to Zeus, and, buoyed by his foreknowledge, treats the messenger god with the utter contempt of the free for the slave who has no power over them, Oyelowo is on sizzling form.

Overall, then, though there are a few bumps along the way this production must be judged a success.

[1] The trilogy is usually given as Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-carrier. But, as has been observed, if the Prometheus Unbound contains Prometheus' release from his imprisonment and his revelation of the prophecy about Thetis to Zeus, little action is left for the third play. It seems to make more dramatic sense for Prometheus the Fire-carrier to be the first play, and to deal with Prometheus' giving the gift of fire to Man (and the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature agrees with me, though the OCD thinks that this title is a variant for another Aeschylus play known to have been presented as part of another trilogy).

[2] At the opening Prometheus is dragged on stage by two speaking characters, Hephaestus and Kratos (Power), accompanied by a non-speaking character, Bia (Force). Yet, although Prometheus is the main speaking character in the play, he says nothing until these three have departed the stage (something that can cause problems for modern productions), and the rest of the play is constructed for two actors. Given that Prometheus is supposed to be impaled on stage, the suspicion is that Prometheus was represented by a puppet, and the actor playing Hephaestus left the stage and then returned to voice Prometheus.

In any case, the assumption that Greek tragedy can necessarily be placed on a fixed line of progression is flawed, as was shown by the discovery of the date of the Suppliants. With a Chorus of fifty, a feature of early tragedy before the numbers were reduced, this was thought to be one of Aeschylus' earliest plays. Papyrus discoveries have now shown it to be about twenty to thirty years later than originally thought, and later than some supposedly more 'advanced' plays.

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