Review: The Globe’s production of the Oresteia

Confusion reigns as a winged phallus steals the show...

Confusion reigns as a winged phallus steals the show…

This review has taken a long time to finish because I found it genuinely difficult to decide exactly what I thought. In the end, it was a production of a few sublime individual moments and performances, incoherently smooshed together into a mess of a play. A little of the problem was down to the original play itself, which assumes a knowledge of all sort of prior events which a modern audience may lack. The atmosphere of high tragedy may have been easier to maintain if Agamemnon’s brutal sacrifice of his eldest daughter Iphigenia had been staged at the beginning as a kind of Prologue. As it was, the chorus briefly explained the back-story in the course of the opening scenes. Unfortunately I can’t say this was entirely successful because rather than focusing on the nature of Agamemnon’s earlier crimes, or the development of Clytemnestra’s character as the mother of a murdered child, the script focused on the politics. Agamemnon was portrayed as a kind of Hellenic Tony Blair; a warmonger with innocent blood on his hands. This kind of reference would work brilliantly alongside Aristophanes’ satirical treatment of the Peloponnesian War in plays such as Lysitrata, but in this case it felt forced and was ultimately distracting. Similarly, the script made a lot of the misogyny inherent in the cycle, but without much finesse or any obvious point.

I think the main reason absurdity crept in where there should have been pathos was that the relentless onward march of the plot offered no opportunity for any form of character development. A series of easily recognisable caricatures were presented, and the audience responded accordingly. Pylades, for instance, did nothing except stand around looking stupid, and carry the giant winged phallus at the end. I can’t decide whether this is more the fault of the play itself, or that of the production. When Cassandra made her dramatic entrance, the play suddenly began to change direction, gradually moving from weird modern opera towards Gilbert and Sullivan-esque absurdity. This was certainly an effective strategy for dealing with stodginess of the source material, but it also created extreme confusion. Despite all this, there was at least one excellent scene at the beginning of the third part of the play. A high priest admonished the audience for paying little heed to the ancient places of worship, with clear reference being made to the great churches of London in our irreverent age. This part of the script was well-judged, and the whole scene worked brilliantly.

Ultimately, Aeschylus’ tragic cycle is a difficult beast to square with modern theatre. A play by Euripides or Aristophanes would be a much simpler and easier affair to present to a modern audience. In the present case the archaic seriousness and simplicity of the narrative was increasingly undermined by the transformation of the final act of the play into a pastiche of ‘Trial by Jury’. Athena looked ridiculous in her reflective gold dress, and her trial was a farce. The resulting winged phallus parade wasn’t bemusing on its own terms; it was simply the crowning bathetic statement of a play which had fired off in all sorts of interesting directions, and resolved none of them.

Six winged phalluses out of ten.

JM, 26/09/15

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