The Oresteia at The Almeida – Vital Greek tragedy reimagined

words Josh Spiller

Shortly before seeing this play, I went to a talk about Greek theatre. Here’s a quote from Ivan van Hove, a renowned director (but not, incidentally, the director of this production):

“Every theatre director tries to avoid Greek tragedy, while we know they’re so important…”

So what’s the problem? Why do aspiring directors sheepishly sidestep these plays? The issue seems to be one of relevance. How do you take these ancient dramas, with their continual clunky inclusions of choruses, and keep them riveting to a modern audience? How do you ensure their themes and ideas hit home as powerfully as when they were first performed?

The trick – or so the directors behind this and many other productions believe – is to give the play an update.

I don’t know about you, but this approach immediately sets alarm signals blaring in my head. I’ve seen ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ set in a caravan park; I’ve watched ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ deciding the fate of the world in a Las Vegas casino. And despite the merits of these productions, the downsides are considerable. Language becomes jarringly anachronistic. References within the script no longer make sense. Certain – often topical – themes are foregrounded at the expense of other, equally important ones.

So my position was simple: modernisations of old plays don’t work. They are doomed projects.

Which brings me to the Almeida’s production of The Oresteia…

A quick heads-up to give you a flavour of the play without spoiling the plot: it’s about how cycles of vengeance become self-perpetuating, and how they can be stopped. It also serves as a myth for the birth of the Western democratic system of justice.

I don’t know if that theme sounds exciting or dull to you, but it should sound vital. This is the system by which we determine and judge the wrongdoing in our society. It deserves to be explored, to see if it stands up to scrutiny.

Given the timeless quality of the subject material, the period this adaptation is set in is suitably ill-defined. The best I can describe it is this: imagine our world as it is today, except with belief in God as powerful for us as it was for the Greeks. A world where we trust in portents, and sacrifices that could change the course of a war. A world where we wear sharp business suits and hold government crisis meetings, all the while invoking the names of gods like Dionysos and Osiris.

After an initial settling-in phase, this hybridisation of cultures and eras becomes convincing and engrossing.

And it’s within this framework that we witness the play’s skilful modernising, its felicitous fusion of past and present: murder weapons used as evidence in a court case are no longer exhibits ‘A’ and ‘B’, but exhibits ‘Alpha’ and ‘Beta’; a haunting, twentieth-century pop song is incorporated, accentuating one of the play’s darker themes; TV cameras transmit political news onto a big screen, helping the political dimension of the play feel as important and relevant for us as it did for the Greeks; murders are accompanied by clinically precise times of death, which will then be neatly woven into the protagonist’s public trial; and the war that is being fought by the state could be against other Greeks, against Persians, or against latter-day terrorism.

In other words, the modernisations don’t mangle the themes of the play at all – they amplify them, make them emotionally arresting for theatre-goers today, while staying true to the original spirit and purpose of play. By the night’s end, I was a complete convert: if you’re going to update old source material, this is a prime example of how it should be done.

Against this thematic complexity, the production’s mise en scene is sparse: in the foreground, a bare dinner table. In the background, what looks like an expensive marble bathtub. And dividing the two, a partition of glass that operates almost like magic: ping, a flash of light, and it’s transparent. Ping, a flash of light, and it’s opaque, its reflections allowing the cast to occasionally break one of the cardinal rules of theatre and face away from their audience.

Other special-effects are used to devastating effect. In one searingly memorable scene, spine-chilling mechanical screams suddenly roar out of nowhere, while a series of blackouts abruptly engulf the stage then reveal it, contributing to a hallucinogenically vivid and violent sequence. It’s a brilliant, visceral moment, and not the only one this production has to offer.

Unfortunately, the play isn’t perfect. The last third is too long, causing some of the ‘til-then admirably sustained narrative intensity to drain away.

Moreover, I’m not convinced that using the same actor for two separate roles (a choice which only manifests in the play’s final third) was the right decision, the resultant confusion perhaps outweighing any of the benefits.

Nonetheless, I recommend this play extremely highly.

(Let’s be honest – that one-line opinion’s all you read this article for, isn’t it? I might as well have just written ‘A triumph’, and stayed in bed.)

Admittedly, when I saw the running time was three-and-a-half hours, I braced myself. But trust me – many two-hour films are slower. This production gave me goosebumps (not an exaggeration), brought tears to my eyes with the ferocity of its performances and, by the time I was walking home, had left me spun out in amazement. Like the blood-red wine poured throughout the play, it’s heady, powerful stuff.

So allow me to finish by completing the quote that began this review:

“Every theatre director tries to avoid Greek tragedy, while we know they’re so important… they’re still essential today.

After watching this production, I completely agree.

The Oresteia at The Almeida review by Josh Spiller


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