Sunday, December 03, 2006

Orestes: Blood and Light

Orestes: Blood & Light
By Helen Edmundson, based on Euripides
Shared Experience/Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

Performance seen: November 30th 2006

One of the pleasures of teaching for the Open University is the wide variety of backgrounds from which your students come. So it is entirely possible to be leafing through the programme for a production in a north London community arts theatre, and discover that the costume supervisor is a former student. But enough of that ...

Given how everyone talks about how rarely Euripides' Orestes is performed, it seems a bit of a luxury to be able to see two productions in the space of just over a year. Even more to be appreciated is that both productions have been very good. But there comparisons have to stop, as the two versions are very different. The Oxford Greek Play from last year was, bar a few chops here and there, a faithful performance of Euripides' text. For Helen Edmundson, writer of Shared Experience's version (which has previously been performed in the same venue as the Oxford version), Euripides is merely the starting point. Whole characters and scenes are lost (Pylades, the Chorus, Apollo and the deus ex machina, the Messenger, and to all intents and purposes the Phrygian slave, made into an African woman and with her role much curtailed). Those characters that remain are given things to say that Euripides never wrote. The result is something that is a work in its own right. At one point, as Electra and Orestes carefully and tenderly planned to take their own lives, I actually thought that the play would end here, a long way from Euripides. It is entirely correct that Edmundson's name comes before the Athenian's in the credits. And this is no bad thing.

In place of the removed characters and scenes, Edmundson gives a much expanded role to Electra, that Greek girl with an excessive interest in the male members of her family. This Electra is as complex as ever (and Edmundson includes explicit references to Euripides' other portrayal of the character in his Electra). She can see through the lies of others. She has a scene with Tyndareos in which she shreds his self-righteousness to pieces. But she is in her own way as insane as her brother. Electra takes Pylades' role in driving events forward. It is Orestes' sexual desire for his sister that reignites his desire for life, and Electra that suggests the murder of Helen. (Yet at one point Orestes deserts he to plead his case, feeling that she will be a hindrance - this is perhaps a reference to something similar in Euripides' original, where Electra is excluded from Pylades and Orestes' plotting, and treated as a junior partner.)

Helen is given a larger part. Ironically, this makes her less sympathetic. He defence of her own and Clytemnestra's actions contains a strong element of hypocrisy, and rejection of personal responsibility. She fled with Paris because of lust, and that is her excuse.

Menelaos is also a lesser person than Eurpides depicts. In many of the plays that Eurpides wrote about Menelaos, he is either manipulative (Iphigenia at Aulis, Andromache), or foolish (Helen, Trojan Women). In Orestes, however, Menelaos is the most honest character, who never promises more than he can deliver (for which he is condemned by Orestes as a fair-weather friend), and he never allows his temper to affect his judgment (unlike Orestes and Tyndareos). Edmundson's Menelaos on the other hand makes promises to Orestes that he has no intention of keeping. And in that he helps bring about the destruction of his family.

In the end, the theme of Edmundson's play seems to be responsibility, and the avoidance of same. Orestes and Electra claim that they are acting on Apollo's command, Helen blames lust, whilst Menelaos betrays his responsibility to his brother's children. All this leads to an ending that returns to Euripides' apocalyptic vision, shorn of the cop-out of the deus ex machina.

The cast are excellent, though their different ethnic background requires a greater suspension of disbelief to accept that they are all related to one another. The lighting makes effective use of the theatre space. And yes, my student's costumes were good.

I'm not sure whether I agree with Edmundson's reading of Eurpides as an out-and-out anti-warmongering writer (a reading of the play also to be found in Philip Vellacott's introduction to his Penguin translation). But overall, this was a fine piece of work, which I enjoyed rather more than some of the critics seem to have.

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