Over the past two weeks I’ve had a fair bit of experience of 2 worlds colliding.
On a serious level, the holiday Gabriel and I just had in Budapest and Vienna thrust us up against the reality of a displaced people. As we walked through underpasses full of sleeping families and walked through barriers, desperate refugees made to wait on the other side, we couldn’t have imagined a more surreal situation.
And then there was yesterday. We had gone to watch the Oresteia at ‘The Globe’.
The first clash was between ancient and modern. As we sat listening to Katy Stephens’ powerful Clytemnestra, her black and white dress now black and blood-red, I found myself distracted by helicopters and planes flying overhead, drowning out her anguished cries. I half-expected her to stop and wait until the interference had passed.
However, not all unexpected distractions were damaging to the performance as when a pigeon flew into the crowd providing the sign from the gods that Electra, Agamemnon’s loyal daughter, is waiting for. Right on cue.
And then there were the deliberate distractions, with actors appearing up from amongst the audience, pulling your eye away from the stage to the crowd, as if reminding us of our shared, fragile humanity.
And perhaps, most amusingly, there were the Italian teenagers on a school trip standing just in front of us. Bored beyond belief. Until Cassandra tore off her dress. Then they could barely stifle their giggles causing them to let out even more uproarious snorts of hilarity. When they started to froth coca cola through their nostrils it was time for them to go. They exited stage left on the advice of a very vigilant attendant.
As for the Oresteia itself, played out in the midst of the many and varied unintentional sideshows, I loved it, expressing as it did that collision between the will of the gods and the will of man that constitutes Greek tragedy.
And there was blood. So much blood, underlining what it is to be mortal and giving visceral meaning to the report that ‘They found the house dyed red’. Agamemnon returns victorious from Troy, Cassandra in tow, his throbbing limbs covered in the stuff. Clytemnestra appears drenched in his blood after she kills him, his butchered limbs piled up high in front of her, dress sodden, face and arms dripping.
In some ghastly parallel scene Orestes too later stands before his mother’s dismembered torso, his own bloody duty, to avenge the murder of his father, done.
All this viscerality was shrouded in the haunting and melancholy atmosphere created by Mira Calix’s music (expressed by a saxophone, horn and clarinet), which at times of dramatic tension added a dolefully discordant edge to the action.
You are made painfully aware that ‘Nobody is innocent’, and certainly not in this most accursed of families. You have pity for Agamemnon. Then you listen to Clytemnestra and have compassion for her. As for Orestes, torn between his duty to a dead father and confused hatred for a living mother, we feel for him. Even the loathesome Aegisthus, son of Thyestes and lover of Clytemnestra, wine glass in hand, has a story to tell so vile that it cannot fail to move you (Atreus, Agamemnon’s father and Aegisthus’ uncle, served up his brother Thyestes’ children to him to eat, sparing Aegisthus).
Family ties and betrayals fuel the endless crimes of revenge. It’s all in the blood. A bloodline that is thus tainted -‘cursed’- demands loyalty, vengeance, justice. The tragic paradox demands that blood destroy blood. The gods will it so.
The final play, Eumenides, is where the gods grant absolution and the spectators experience catharsis. The tone changes from tragedy to… well, you’ll see. Mercy is meted out to Orestes by a magnificent, gold sequin clad Athena, goddess of wisdom and daughter of Zeus. Then, ‘dove-from-above’ -like, a strange winged giant golden phallus descends on to the stage (presumably that of Zeus), only to be feted in a conga-style procession, with gold confetti. Dazzlingly, farcically patriarchal – order is thus restored to the world. Huge golden phalluses were often paraded round at the end of Greek plays. Apparently.
Oh, if only those Italian boys had stayed! Titter ye not…
Large enough to grace Phidias’ statue of Zeus at Olympia?
The Oresteia comprises three plays by Aeschylus – Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides and is on at The Globe Theatre, London until October 16th.
Ticket prices : standing £5. Seats £17 – £43.
MUST GO – if you love the theatre. If you love/study literature ( in particular European 17th century drama/tragedy) or Ancient History.
MUST NOT GO – if you suffer from a bad back. If you don’t like tragedy as a dramatic form. If you don’t speak English. Although, as my little Italian friends can testify, there is something to entertain everybody in the Oresteia. Shame they didn’t stay until the end…
Less Cher more Frankie Howerd
Running time : 3 hours with two breaks.
To get the most out of the performance :
Book a seat. Front rows are best and restricted view really does mean restricted view here so avoid if possible. To give yourself the best chance of hearing the actors when the planes fly above go for the seats facing the stage.
Hire cushions. The slatted wooden seats with backs are even better (a fact I discovered when an early leaver kindly bequeathed one to me when she left midway through the performance).
Familiarise yourself with the story so that you know what’s going on. The story http://www.ancient-literature.com/greece_aeschylus_oresteia.html
Seen this and are now hooked on Greek tragedy? Go and see Oresteia at the Trafalgar Studios, London, showing until November 7th : http://www.almeida.co.uk/whats-on/oresteia/22-aug-2015-7-nov-2015
£29.50 – £45.50