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Orestes
Tricycle Theatre, London


Iona Firouzabadi
posted 21 November 2006

Shared Experience brings us a reworking of Euripides' Orestes: a version that is less Greek Tragedy, more Hollywood horror. The flow of blood in language and design gradually mires the play, while psychological crises, incest and sensation muddy the impact of Euripides modern political parallels.

The House of Atreus has a history of violence and Orestes and his sister Electra are its dangerous children. They have murdered their mother Clytemnestra and brought down the wrath of Athens, embodied by their Grandfather Tyndareos. The rabble of the city is at the palace gates, baying to stone them to death in the name of justice. At the time of Euripides writing, mob government ruled Athens and the question of who holds legitimate power shaped his Orestes.

In Euripides' version, Orestes friend Pylades spurs him from the murder of his mother to the killing of her sister, Helen. In Helen Edmundson's reinterpretation, Pylades is cut - as is the Athenian chorus - and the play's ending is significantly altered. The effect of these simplifications is to sandpaper the play's complexities. Instead of having Orestes played upon by an Iago figure, we have him battling with himself as a weak shadow of Hamlet, torn by his own psyche. His emotional arc becomes a confused rollercoaster of lucidity and psychopathy. Without the chorus, we are left with an airless domestic drama, punctured by one scene between Tyndareos and Orestes that wrestles with the meaning of civil society. The god Apollo does not make his closing appearance, which guts the play's ironic treatment of free will versus divine power.

The narrative of Orestes and Electra is unbalanced by this stripping-back of external motivators and commentators. Despite strong and sympathetic performances of these warped child-adults by Alex Robertson and Mairead McKinley, they have little to found their characters on. Helen Edmundson's script is at its best when examining the perfidy of politicians. Unfortunately it too often sinks into the splodges and squiggles of an artless family portrait.

If the aim had been to humanise this ancient work for a modern audience, then it would have been necessary to do more than soak it in pseudo-Freudian analysis, so that its structure sags and leaks. Much of the imagery in the writing is startlingly vivid, but as a dramatic narrative it falls down. Orestes and Electra are natural born killers, modern anti-heroes with society waiting to bash their door down and do unto them as they have done unto it. But this production is devoid of that sense of tension. The play could be a long, claustrophobic moment, waiting for death or escape. This gift - this opportunity to gnaw at the audience's nerves - is discarded. At points the re-write does deal intelligently with salient questions over legality, justice, conscience and war. Yet its constant need to retreat into woolly psychoanalytic characterisation, combined with a denouement of outstanding schlock, prevents it being a cogent or coherent political play.


Till 2 December 2006

 

 
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