Aeschylus’ The Oresteia is a whopping trilogy – even judiciously adapted by young playwright Rory Mullarkey with an eye for where to compress, it runs at three hours. You’d think that such a behemoth, and one that deals in elemental myths of vengeance, familial love, the need for justice and how society might shape that, could take whatever you throw at it… sadly, Mullarkey’s version, with unfocused direction by Adele Thomas, groans under the weight of half-baked ideas.
Lets take the script first. Although it’s a commendably clear and condensed telling of the story of the generational cycles of violence in a Greek royal family, the tone is all over the shop. Mullarkey has done a line-by-line, verse-and-structure preserving adaptation; it’s unabashedly high-poetical. Fine.
But it’s also written in broad ye olde idioms: “we pity you the death you have foretold”; “Apollo bade me do it”. When was the last time anyone said “bade”? Why write a new version like this? Such archaisms don’t reflect ancient Greek, but nor do they relate to the period the production is set in – admittedly that would be difficult, given the production doesn’t seem to be set anywhere: costumes skip merrily from cartoonish armoured antiquity to Forties’ overcoats and trilbies to Sixties’ op-art dresses to modern riot police.
Perhaps the whole thing is meant to be a glorious, unbounded mish-mash – for Mullarkey splashes in the odd bit of modern louche language too (calling women “sluts”, for instance). And these two styles could have rubbed up against each other, making something of the contrast; instead, the occasional contemporary moments burst incongruously, like jelly beans stirred through porridge.
I’m presume there’s a rhythm-preserving reason for it, but mostly it feels like this style was chosen just because that’s what you do when translating the Greeks. But there’s an elephant in the room here, trumpeting that it doesn’t need to be so: Robert Icke’s mammoth adaptation that recently transferred from the Almeida to the West End. Icke’s version was a breathtakingly brilliant example of how The Oresteia can take a total wrench into free modern prose.
Thomas makes plenty of bold staging choices, however. Loads of blood, and a recurring grotesque banquet table of dismembered limbs. Stylised movement sequences and chanting from the chorus. The Furies as comically creepy little-girl zombies, grunting and gasping like something out of a straight-to-VHS Nineties horror movie. A giant golden winged penis even comes on at the end (it’s a satyr play! Textually justified, y’all!)
Indeed, the last third – Eumenides – when Orestes, pursued by vengeance-hungry furies instead stands trial for murdering his mother in Athena’s court, is the most interesting, even if also tonally totally scrambled. The furies prompt laughter when plunged into a courtroom drama, in a scene which seems to be played for laughs. But Mullarkey’s script here offers a more robust attempt to marry the ancient and the modern, even if many references to “immigrants” in the last moments, as the furies are accepted into civilised society, clunk a bit.
Performances are good throughout, committed even to the most wobbly directorial choices, but it’s Katy Stephens’ night. As Clytemnestra, she first welcomes her husband Agamemnon back with sarcastic, sexy menace; later, slick with blood, she’s full of silky, psychotic delight at her butchery. She’s totally monstrous – there’s little of the feminist sympathy of Icke’s Oresteia here – but totally terrific.
The incidental music – by modern composer Mira Calix – is a highlight, blending subtle twitchy electronic soundscapes with live woodwind; now moodily atmospheric, now discordant and staccato. Much less effective are the song-and-dance moments; not that the actors aren’t technically accomplished, but the abrasive, a-rhythmic songs are more cringey than creepy. Imagine Arnold Schoenberg’s expressionism meeting Claude-Michel Schonberg’s Les Mis… welcome to Oresteia! The Atonal Musical.
The Globe stage is boarded up with makeshift bits of wood and graffiti – hello, modern Athens – but there is a dais, with braziers burning incense, to give a sense of ritual and ceremony. It’s a big old open space, mind, and while that might help in the courtroom scenes – if the audience weren’t so busy sniggering at the gurning child-furies – ramping up the feverish, blood-clotting atmosphere for the rest of the play can be a struggle. Some of those dodgy dance moves might have come off better, too, had they been cradled by the dark.
There’s no shortage of bold ideas here, which is always to be applauded. I just wish they’d chosen a few and honed them; right now, this Oresteia feels more messy than meaningful.