In this, their third latest production for the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival, The Company take as a challenge from the grave the final words of Hamlet, prince of Denmark, as he concedes to the inevitability of his tragic fate (‘The rest is silence’).
For Brian Bennett, José Miguel Jiminez, Rob McDermott and Nyree Yergainharsian Hamlet’s valediction is an invitation to explore the materials that make up a tragedy: plot, actions, conventions, and the weight of textual and performance tradition. And not just any tragedy: the Oresteia’s delineation of the conventions and expectations of tragedy is their target. But it is an unapologetically modern rather than ancient or early modern performance of tragedy that interests them, and they work through the materials of tragedy in an informal, deliberately banal register. ‘Why can’t we get out of it?’ the play-description reads, and in a short, sharp performance, it seeks answers in and through the art of acting itself. Conceived and created by the actors and director (all of whom clearly relish the work), it feels at many moments like a particularly knowing workshop session on the process and craft of acting and the place of the ‘real’ in a world of signs.
The piece begins in darkness, two spots of torchlight, before the actors emerge to switch on their own lighting, unroll with some effort a heavy red carpet, and move into some preliminary conversational scenes as the three lounge and wait for ‘something to happen’, trading stories of acting techniques and throwing out pointers to the audience about tragic conventions and the challenges of acting. Soon we move onto a series of re-tellings of the plot of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, the first of the three plays of the Oresteia, our only surviving full cycle of Greek tragedy, and the winner of the dramatic competition at Athens in 485BCE.
Throughout, it explores the crafts and conventions of acting and actors, the (en)acting of acting and the process of ‘process’. More combatively, the actors seek to understand the logic and influence of Greek tragedy in modern terms. Sometimes this leads to witty and clever reconceptualizations: one of the most effective (and funniest) scenes presents the actor playing Agamemnon interviewed by vulture reporters in deceptively fawning terms on the red-carpet after its honours at Athens – or, indeed, the parallel scene in which Agamemnon gets the same treatment following his success in Troy. At other times, the knowingness simply circles around itself; the script’s over-playing of that South Dublin tic, how things ‘literally’ are, irritates more than it enlightens.
That knowingness is not without its uncertainties, though, notably in its trust of its audience. An early, flip comment about knowing that one of the trio onstage will have to die because it’s a tragedy is gauche in a play that relies on some familiarity with the fate of the House of Atreus and that concludes with an image of Plato’s Cave. Similarly, although the shift to visual projections in the later scenes brings a new energy to the production, it shows a discontinuity with the concerted unveiling of theatrical props and tricks earlier on.
But if the players make free with their venerable classical material, there is also a clear sense of constraint within the terms of their material; the admission that what happens (in the play) will still happen is a constant refrain. The overlap between the realms of acting and action notwitstanding, the death they have signalled still happens, a moment that nonetheless catches some of the audience by surprise. This entertaining, creative piece still retains the feel of a workshop, albeit a particularly engaging one. But its attempt to deconstruct Greek tragedy and examine its modern legacy ultimately takes second place to its actorly interest in the art of acting.