“I feel like the Oresteia is probably – and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this – the pinnacle of the most difficult translation job for an English playwright in the literary canon.” Rory Mullarkey must be a glutton for punishment. His adaptation of Aeschylus’ 2,500 year old trilogy is playing in the Globe at the end of August. “It’s three plays, the language is incredibly dense and filled with things that you have to make really quite big decisions about. I didn’t feel like my Greek was good enough for something like that.” To be fair to Mullarkey, though, there are very few people in their late twenties who could say that their Greek is good enough for anything.
So, when Lyn Gardner reviewed his first play Coat in Edinburgh in 2007, called it “too clever for its own good” and slapped two stars on it, she may have been right. A Cambridge graduate, fluent in several languages, always ready with a Nietzsche quote: he’s as close as it comes to a renaissance man.
Though Wolf From The Door, a drama set in post-apocalyptic Britain, didn’t tickle the critics when it played at the Royal Court Upstairs last year, Mullarkey’s previous play Cannibals was hailed as “one of the most provocative, original and disturbing debuts since Blasted”. But the impulse to write for the stage only came after years of acting: “My school had a cool little room that they used as a theatre so we just made loads of things in there. We did Aristophanes’ Frogs and I was Dionysus.” After that came stand up and sketch shows but always as “a supplement to performing. I wrote sketches because I wanted to perform sketches.”
Everything changed during a year out of his languages degree. After two weeks at a drama school in Russia, he was kicked out. “I had a big argument with the guy who ran the course. We had to do eight hours a day of Stanislavskian exercises, and I didn’t really want to do that. He told me to get out and that I was a disgrace to my university. I left and ended up getting mugged and pick-pocketed on the same evening, wandering around St Petersburg like I was in a Gogol short story or something, no money, it was wet, it was cold, it was horrible. So I flew home and it felt like that moment was maybe my acting career being over.”
After the drama of St Petersburg, Mullarkey picked a different Central Asian destination: Kyrgyzstan. No Stanislavsky there. Instead, he seems to have lived the bucolic dream, tending to sheep on a hillside and living out his own Eclogue. “It was the best decision I ever made. Since about 12 I had just performed and being there not doing it for a year I came back and suddenly I’m so self-conscious inside my own head I could only write. But by that stage I’d realised that that was what I wanted to do, that was the thing.” It’s a decision that has clearly paid off.
His Oresteia adaptation is a blend of epic and colloquial speech. It’s in a variety of metres – from iambic pentameter to trimeter, via amphibrachics – and he explains that he wants a jarring tone. “I feel like Aeschylus himself was relatively anachronistic, he switched between archaisms and neologisms and colloquialisms. I guess I wanted it to feel like there was a sense of anachronism running through it.” This mishmash feeling extends to the design as well, which is influenced by recondite cinema: “Have you seen a film by Theo Angelopoulos called The Travelling Players?” I haven’t. “It’s amazing. It’s about four hours long, and it’s seventy shots. It’s so slow. It’s about this group of actors travelling in Greece from the end of the 2nd world war, in the 1950s, so a period of big flux in the country and they’re going round doing the Oresteia in various villages. It’s completely completely brilliant.”
And between the first two acts (the family dramas) and the third (set in a cosmic courtroom, with Athena deciding the fate of Orestes) is a stylistic shift. “The final play feels a lot more influenced by this Jodorowsky film called Holy Mountain, which is a bonkers, psychedelic, 70s acid trip. It’s very culty and mystical, obsessed with things like Aleister Crowley. So it feels like there’s this strange mysticism to the design of the third play.” Mullarkey even promises electronic music, composed by Mira Calix, coming from unexpected places (hint: think Teletubbies). It makes a change from the usual Globe fare of cornetts and sackbuts.
In terms of its politics, Mullarkey has attempted to keep it very open. “There’s a bit of Wordsworth where he’s talking about the rocks and the trees respiring with inward meaning. If you make a good thing in and of itself, a thing that you’ve put your heart into, then it stands for many other things to many other people. I thought the best thing to do was just to sit down and write it, and I feel like things about Greece and the EU and Ukraine and revolution and feminism and radical socialism and Sepp Blatter and all that shit ends up in there anyway because it’s going around in my head.”
Mullarkey studied Ancient Greek at school, enough to be able to read it, and Latin at university, along with Russian and Ukrainian (“I was the only person doing that. Probably still the only person who’s done that.”) so he has a sense of “the lexical structure, the mythology, the cultural history” of the ancient world. And he worked as a translator at the Royal Court for Russian plays so he knows what’s required when recreating a play in another language. But in translating Aeschylus, “you’re never really translating a word, you’re translating other things as well: intention, feeling, action. To know all of the density that a word has in its original language is important for my work in Russian, and I wanted to get a sense of that for the Greek. And so I went through the Greek line by line, picking out image and sound and rhythm.”
Rhythm is a word that Mullarkey returns to again and again. “Rhythm is extremely important to me. The only good thing Nietzsche said about the theatre being ‘if an actor doesn’t understand the rhythm they don’t understand the line’. I really want to be precise and specific about rhythm.” And it’s a quality that’s evident in his work. Despite his desire to do “something radically different from the thing I’ve done before”, there is a running theme that the prosody of his writing and how it sounds is as important as what it says. “I feel like you can get as much out of the line from the rhythm of it and the sound of it as you can from the content.”
It’s a quality that has seen him become an increasingly prolific librettist alongside his playwriting, a strand of his work that started when Lyndsey Turner recommended him to Katie Mitchell, sensing the musicality in his writing. Mitchell hired him, and the commissions have kept coming. He likes watching opera too: “It’s even more reflexive than the theatre. I don’t think I would go to a four-hour opera and not at some point think about something else. It’s extremely expensive and overblown, slightly ludicrously, but to be in that room with an orchestra and singers and an amazing set – I think it’s a brilliant thing.”
Last year Mullarkey received three prestigious writing awards in a short space of time: the George Devine Award and the Pinter Commission for Wolf From The Door and the James Tait Black Prize for Cannibals. But he’s relaxed about it. “It was luck of the draw really. I wrote Cannibals for the Royal Exchange, they put it on in the main house, I was thrilled. It was the worst-selling show they ever did. Then for Wolf From The Door I won two awards for that script before it was even performed. And then it was performed, it sold really well but the critical reception was lukewarm.”
Has the recognition changed his approach to writing? “It was nice to get some money, but aside from that you’re only as good as the last thing you write or the thing you’re writing at the moment. If you’re struggling to get up in the morning writing a new thing, it’s not going to make it any harder or easier.” After the Globe, Mullarkey tells me there are commissions for the Almeida and the National floating around. In the space of a year, in the variety, the intensity and the quality of his work, Mullarkey seems to have transitioned from rising star to risen.
The Oresteia runs 29 August – 16 October at the Globe Theatre, London.