I’m sick of Grey. Is it me or is an overwhelmingly Grey palette in a production used far too much as if it’s some kind of aesthetic shortcut to make a show stark and contemporary? Yeah it looks cool in your publicity photos when you can have contrast sharper than Malcolm Tucker’s tongue and everyone’s face looking like Dot Cotton performing a one-woman adaptation of Guernica, but to sit and watch performers move across some Grey sand and climb a Grey ladder, whilst wearing muted or Grey civvies isn’t particularly an assault on the senses. Fun fact about Greek statues – they all used to be brightly coloured. The reason they’re Grey is because they’re pretty bloody old and all the paint’s long faded and worn off.
It’s a lot of effort these days to make Greek tragic theatre relevant – because it’s incredibly old by now, and all the ancient Greeks are incredibly dead. Fortunately, the aesthetic and formal values it’s instilled in our culture over the centuries do a lot of that work for us. But it’s still not enough. We need Ted Hughes and gritty reboots and community choruses and we need them to be translated out of ancient Greek and cut to about a sixth of the length. Maybe it’s a result of Blanche McIntyre’s version being a condensed, 105 minute version of three not uneventful plays, but the amount of constant exposition and introduction of characters was overwhelming, and wasn’t helped by the small cast playing nine characters between four of them. Characters blended into each other, with actors playing their own sons and fathers and murderers and victims and for a lot of the play I really had no idea what was going on.
Palette aside, I think Laura Hopkins’s design for this production could have been a lot more interesting – metal curtains separating off upstage like a partition in a butcher’s shop, sand-covered stage with occasional items buried in it, a big ladder – but it just wasn’t used. In general the direction felt so totally focused on the text and its delivery in a sort-of-not-classical-but-actually-yes-classical- but-maybe-a-little-friendlier manner that the show lacked any strong visuals. All the storytelling relied on Ted Hughes’s translation and the occasional, exceptionally inexplicable flashing of sections of the chorus’s lines on the back wall. There was a scattering of visual moments that could have been gorgeous and strong but were all rushed through and shrugged aside as if unnecessary afterthoughts.
I think community theatre’s great. I think communities are great and I think theatre’s great so that’s not too much of a cognitive leap. In terms of process, HOME and McIntyre have done something really laudable. And on paper, it sounds like a good idea – get locals involved in the production, create a piece of work with a sense of community that truly could only have happened in Manchester. The publicity posters (also Greyish) push in this direction – headshots of members of the community cast, with their name and whereabouts in Manchester they’re from. Which I think’s a really excellent way of creating a public face for such a solid old thing as Greek tragedy. Unfortunately that attitude didn’t come across in the performance – instead we had the ‘proper’ actors playing the leads and the community’s chorus occasionally offering whatever it was the chorus had to offer at that point, like a bolt-on or two simultaneous but separate shows.
One of the moments I did grasp was Athene, towards The Oresteia’s end, ‘gifting’ the people of Athens laws and justice and oh what a fantastic thing a court of law is because it always sets everything right in the end. After Manchester International Festival this year, I feel like I’m more sensitive than before to the trend of plugging shows into Manchester without a wider consideration of Manchester’s context outside of being a venue. Putting on a community-focused production of a play declaring the wonders of the justice system in a city where the courts keep banning the homeless from public squares rings a little hollow to me. It’s not for me to dictate the politics a show ought to have, though, and the inclusion of a community cast at all is an encouraging gesture for HOME to be making. The Oresteia was too vague and imageless for me to keep track or engaged; I wanted more colour, more life.