Zinnie Harris’ reworking of Aeschylus’ classical trilogy The Oresteia imbues that ancient Grecian epic with a merciless modern sensibility. In place of patriarchal dominance and spiritual judgement, Harris’ Restless House is a raw, bone-shaking post-mortem of individualism, familial versus personal responsibility and the cyclical nature of revenge.
Preserving the trilogy’s original structure, This Restless House is told over two shows: Part 1: Agamemnon’s return, and Part 2: The Bough Breaks, and Electra and Her Shadow. As in Aeschylus’ original, we begin in the world of legend: Troy, Sparta; Grecian Kings sailing to war on the back of godly ordination. Within this framing– complete with poignant, heckling Chorus of undesirables– the action contracts to focus on King Agamemnon, whose sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia seemingly at the demand of the gods, plunges his family into a relentless spiral of blame and bitter violence until finally cosmic judgement– or in this case psychological intervention– calls this restless, blood-soaked house to account.
Harris’ script is a belter: harshly contemporary and eye-wateringly lucid, peeling apart the mechanisations of this ruined family with every word. Around this, Dominic Hill’s creative team have assembled a production that seethes animosity; a sensory assault that astonishes and even sometimes repels with its relentless reiteration of personal agony.
Colin Richmond’s design of the ‘restless house’ itself is a monument to the neglect and spiritual degradation of the characters. Towering walls, cairns of empty wine bottles, with steel autopsy tables and a chain-link garden swing for furniture, Agamemnon’s clan fester in an outdated bunker. Bathed lavishly in putrid yellow and blood red by Ben Ormerod , it’s a jail-cell mental ward, too small to contain the horrors within.
The eerily beautiful soundtrack– composed by Nikola Kodjabashia, a fantastic clash of classical choruses and pounding, discordant basslines–is provided live, most often by the ghosts of murdered characters as they stalk the perimeter of the stage. Their music– usually the crash of the piano, icy strings or simply pained groaning — compels Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra in their murderous acts but (importantly) never explicitly directs them. These ghosts and their music are the inescapable voices in their heads, manifestations of pain and regret, and, in the end, excuses.
The accelerating intensity of the action leaves no room for weak links onstage, and the Restless House company are uniformly excellent, playing the extremity of Aeschylus’ tragedy with an naturalism that makes your skin crawl. The clandestine meeting of Pauline Knowles’ prowling, dead-eyed Clytemnestra and George Anton’s Stalinesque Agamemnon is electric. The protagonist of The Bough Breaks, Olivia Morgan’s Electra is a roaring girl, a force of nature, struggling to be heard in the household where she is forgotten. It isn’t surprising when she becomes the murderer in place of her brother, Lorn MacDonald’s unpredictable, embittered Orestes. Keith Fleming darkens the stage as the chillingly opportunistic Aegisthus, while Anita Vettesse adds brevity as a refreshingly likable Ianthe in Part 1 before becoming Electra’s tormented shadow, Audrey, in the final act.
Unlike Aeschylus’ original, Harris’ adaptation brings the female characters to the fore, the murders they commit being not only blood revenge and familial duty, but the result of neglect and disempowerment. The effects of abandonment are constantly reiterated throughout the play, characters becoming so isolated from each other that murder seems an acceptable action. While the suggestion of a spiritual curse on the family is often referred to, in the action of the play it’s the chillingly everyday reasons for the family’s bitterness that are most evident: the broken marriage, the abusive stepdad, the neglected child. There is only one scene in which the family appear together– an emotional reunion that boldly and unashamedly reminds us that so much can be cured by genuine community, togetherness and acceptance of responsibility.
Beginning with one murder and mercilessly descending into a bloodbath, Harris’ script is unflinching in its understanding that violence begets violence and justifications are as flimsy as a yellow dress caught in a summer rain. Ultimately, we make our own decisions and it is these decisions which trap or free us. But we are not alone in this world– through genuine relationship, we can stop each other from becoming monsters.
Powered by Harris’ sensational script, Dominic Hill’s colossal production is a towering achievement of emotional intensity and theatrical ambition. The best new production this year.
This Restless House is on until 14th May 2016. Click here for tickets.