It’s all Greek to us

Orestes
dir Pippa Needs
11 to 15 October
Oxford PlayhouseThis term’s staging of Orestes marks the 125th anniversary of the first Greek play to be put on in Oxford, Agamemnon. In hindsight it proved a landmark in Oxford drama, spawning OUDS in 1884, and so establishing the Greek play as a tri-annual tradition. Its Ronseal concept is simple and uncompromising: to stage a play entirely in ancient Greek. This is an enormous feat, particularly when leading cast members have no prior knowledge of Greek – certain among them spending eight hours a day in rehearsal for the weeks leading up to performance. A dedicated company of actors and extensive crew are prerequisites for making a project such as this a success.
Given its moment, the choice of Orestes seems at first rather surprising. It is not the tragedy Euripides is perhaps best remembered for among scholars. Its plot, endlessly twisting and turning, is seen as too diffuse: Orestes (Matthew Trueman) has murdered his mother and her lover as retribution for their murder of his father, and now faces both exile and condemnation to death; Electra (Rose Heiney), Orestes’ sister, also confronts execution for encouraging her brother in the act. Each scene introduces a new breach in family state politics to explore the margins of human volition and behaviour. Ultimately, Orestes becomes embroiled in the quasi-murder of his aunt, Helen of Troy (Kannayo Okolie), a hostage-taking, and the potential razing of the ancestral home.
Euripides sets rolling a ball that he pushes further and further beyond characters’ control, triggering finally the peremptory appearance of Phoebus Apollo, a part well suited to the statuesque Benjamin Cartlidge, an award-winning declaimer of Greek. As the sun god his enigmatic figure at once illuminates totally yet blinds utterly when descending at sunset. His condescension provides the play’s resolution without the answers to those questions it has raised. Greek myth, so important in contemporary dramatic understanding and interaction, is paid relatively little exacting homage in Orestes. Perhaps this is why the play was admired by antiquity as one of the greatest; it asks of its audience a dynamic mythological knowledge.
By the same token, however, the masterful complexities Euripides proposes up the stakes for the Greek play. Inherently the tradition runs a risk with its audience. The pattern of Orestes is not instantly recognisable in the way that Oedipus Rex’s motif has been reactivated in the twentieth-century mindset through the work of psychoanalysis. So at a basic level, simply getting the message across places a heavy and unusual burden on the actors, though at least some of the strain is relieved by surtitles that provide a running dialogue précis.
Thankfully, there is no shortage of stage presence, though the cast’s dumb show work pays the greatest tribute to their application. Matthew Trueman smoulders and sporadically spits fire in a characteristically energised performance. His brother-mother/father relationship with Electra is secured by Rose Heiney’s brooding and dishevelled collaboration, transformed by make-up into something of an androgynous Electra. Himanshu Ojha captures well the rather oleaginous quality of Menelaus’ sea-sailing rhetoric as he sells Orestes down the river.
Musically the play offers rhythmically mesmeric Chorus parts (think Aztec, for the uninformed) and centrepiece arias, thanks to Hugh Brunt’s bespoke musical contributions. Consequently, Sheridan Edwards dazzles during his twenty minute aria as a Phrygian slave; Brunt’s composition matches the emotional and syntactical meltdown of this episode, providing glimpses of beauty during a distraught atonal climax.
Indeed, the Chorus, so famously difficult to deliver palatably to a modern audience not accustomed to such excesses, is deployed to provide instalments of choreographed narrative and reflection structured to exploit the multi-level grave circle set. It breathes across the stage like a chilled smoke. Fundamentally, both Chorus and set are kept stylish yet simple, and remain highly effective for it. Nothing about this play or its production is made easy for its audience. But equally one takes from it as much as one will. This is an extremely significant production not only for choice Classicists. ω ποποι? Not at all.ARCHIVE: 0th week MT 2005