Arts: Theatre: A long day's journey into nightmare

THE ORESTEIA COTTESLOE ROYAL NATIONAL THEATRE LONDON
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The Independent Culture
FORGIVE ME for being slow, but it wasn't until the second of the four segments of Katie Mitchell's Cottesloe staging of The Oresteia that I realised we were witnessing a production of genius. This is the world premiere of the late Ted Hughes's version of Aeschylus's great trilogy and it constitutes the richest rebuke possible to those mean-spirited people who maintain that the biggest favour Hughes could have done to existence after the Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill tragedies would have been to commit suicide himself.

A cursed house; a child slaughtered by its parent; the genetic law of Zeus that is "a kind of disease/ Inherited through the blood" - this was not the stuff of antique fable for Hughes. His own experience and what he honourably wrested from it permit his poetry to send the deepest probes into Aeschylus's text and make it his own. Yet the effect is often one of vertiginous soaring. "Life at the top has the best view/ Of the depths man will crawl to" declares Michael Gould's Agamemnon.

Staged in a stark traverse arrangement, with a Chorus of wheelchaired veterans, and much use of live filmed close-up, Katie Mitchell's modern- dress production reinforces Hughes's inspiration by not running slavishly parallel.

Take the murderous red-carpet treatment Clytemnestra accords her husband on his return from the war. Here the silken trap of a path on which his unwashed, unwitting feet tread is a long blasphemous patchwork of the little dresses that had once belonged to Iphigenia, the daughter he murdered and a gagged posthumous presence here throughout the Agamemnon.

Or take her dark, profoundly witty idea of presenting the Furies in the final play as the District Nurses from Hell, all surgical gloves and syringes. Shudderingly, it reminds you that Eumenides, the Greek euphemism for them (the "Kindly Ones"), is also cognate with euthanasia, that the wrong kind of order is eerily akin to the chaos of blood vengeance.

Brilliantly acted (especially by Lilo Baur as a Cassandra heartrendingly straitjacketed in a wedding dress and by Anastasia Hille, as a blonde, chilling but also complex and conflicted Clytemnestra), the production is full of details that scrape the nerves. Drenched in the blood of the husband she has just butchered, Clytemnestra confronts the appalled Chorus and brandishes "the hand that Justice contracted/ To kill him", underlining the pun by miming the clenching of a knife. Then from this gory limb, she suddenly tries to flick away one of Agamemnon's hairs that has stuck to it - a gesture of breathtakingly misplaced fastidiousness.

Above all, in its rhythms and its ritually recurring configurations, the production wonderfully conveys the incremental aching hollowness of the satisfactions achieved by revenge. Iphigenia walks up to the mother who has avenged her, engages in a brief embrace and then, heartrendingly, slips away to curl up on the corpse of her father in his bath. You can see in Hille's face a recognition of the futility of it all. What is a life worth? Is it worth another life? These questions are explored here in a version that for all its mighty turbulences and vivid violence possesses the deep underlying sanity of great art. The whole experience, which stretched from 1pm to 10pm, has you dusting down the word "transcendent".

paul Taylor

In repertory, 0171-452 3000

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