Sunday, 13 September 2015

'The Oresteia' at Shakespeare's Globe

'The Oresteia' is the name of a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus, one of the earliest plays that have survived down the years from when it was originally performed in 458BC. The three plays are 'Agamemnon' in which the hero returns to his kingdom of Argos from the Trojan War and is killed by Clytemnestra, 'The Libation Bearers' which takes place years later and Orestes is grown up and comes to take revenge on his mother Clytemnestra, and finally 'The Eumenides' in which Athena bestows laws and democracy on Athens during the trial of Orestes. 

This is primal stuff. It goes back to the roots of civilisation, to the old blood gods and the new, more enlightened gods. At one level there's lots of blood n guts, lots of revenge and tragedy, but it's also a philosophical treatise on an emerging civilisation that believes man has a place and can carve out a future. Part of me was watching as the ideas mounted up through the dialogue on stage, thinking Aeschylus is treating this as a dramatic debate and he's going to win. 

It's a powerful tale of revenge and consequences, of how one action can set up a series of disasters, both personal and for the state. Ten years ago, when Agamemnon set sail for Troy, he sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia to guarantee good winds to reach Troy. That sets the seed of revenge in the heart of Clytemnestra who can't forgive her husband. He arrives in his chariot, still covered in blood from his many battles and he leaves blood stains on the cloth Clytemnestra lays out as he enters his palace. And that's the last we see of the general and king since she butchers him in the bath. It's only then that we learn that she's been plotting with Agamemnon's nephew who wants to steal the crown and they've been lovers.

The next play opens at Agamemnon's tomb where his daughter, Electra, is taking libations to ease her father's spirit when she meets her long-lost brother who was sent away to grow up in a neighbouring kingdom. Orestes vows vengeance on their mother and cousin and the citizenry rejoice. They've been treated as slaves by the royal couple and yearn for the good old days. What's more, Orestes was sent there by Apollo's oracle at Delphi with instructions to punish their mother. He kills his cousin and confronts his mother who he kills off-stage. He's then haunted by the Furies who claim the soul of kin-slayers and he runs for his life.

The final play sees Apollo intervening and helping Orestes evade the Furies so he can reach Athens and seek judgement from Athena. Or Sparkling Athena as she will now be known since she appeared in the most sparkly frock since 1973 sending off shards of light in all directions - glam rock meets disco decadence at Studio 54 at the Acropolis. But she is a wise goddess and sets up the first court made up of Athenians to make the judgement. Orestes is set free to take up his place as king of Argos and the Furies become the protectors of Athens. A happy ending (sort of) but, phew, what a slog to get there!

Three hours (including two half times) is a long time, particularly on the hard benches of the Globe but I'm pleased I've seen the plays and I enjoyed this production. The second play reminded me very much of 'Hamlet' but, unlike our sweet prince, Orestes doesn't hesitate. Also, I thought the production couldn't quite decide what it was, with the citizenry in modern clothes along with Orestes and Electra, Agamemnon in ancient Greek armour, Clytemnestra in a Biba outfit and the Furies as straggly haired Goths staring at their feet. The brass band annoyingly drowned out Cassandra's predictions of doom with the silly, jazz twiddles on the oboe. But, hey ho, it all seemed to work in the end.

The plays are all about Clytemnestra - she is the powerhouse behind them, her passion, her vengeance and her distain of other people's morality. She even rises from the dead in the third play to chastise the Furies for not hunting down her murderous son. You don't mess with Clytemnestra who was regally  played by Katy Stephens, being entirely reasonable and blood-thirsty by turns. I also liked George Irving as Agamemnon and Apollo and Joel MacCormack as Orestes.

The final 'party' scene left me a bit puzzled, with the giant golden phallus and dead goat on a stick but you can't have it all. With the nights drawing in and the temperatures dropping the outdoor Globe theatre will be closing shortly but if you want to see the dawn of drama and tragedy then pop along to the Globe. It's an eye-opener!

Another angle to this series of plays is that I've been to where they're set. I've been to Agamemnon's tomb in Greece, to his hilltop city and Clytemnestra's palace at Argos, to Apollo's oracle at Delphi and to Athena's temple at the Acropolis in Athens. If, or when, I go back, I'll look at them with new eyes and a fresh mind.

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