Clear and unmasked, but still a tragedy

Is husband-murder more heinous than matricide? How can a 2,500- year-old play seem topical? Daniel Rosenthal looks for clues in a remarkable new production of Aeschylus's 'Oresteia'
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The Independent Culture
L ast week, the Barbican's seven-month Bite season, which has brought Russian, Japanese, American and French theatre companies to the capital, came to an end with a dazzling Romanian production of Aeschylus's trilogy of revenge and reconciliation, The Oresteia. As staged by the director Silviu Purcarete and the National Theatre of Craiova, this was Greek drama seen in unfamiliar guise: heavily edited, surprisingly irreverent and, at times, deliberately dull.

Three weeks ago, the company's drab home city, 180 miles west of Bucharest, seemed an unlikely place in which to find evidence of the magically enduring appeal of 2,400-year-old Greek tragedy.

Craiova's teens and 20-somethings can choose to spend their limited cash on the usual range of youth-oriented activities. Yet on that Saturday night, under-25s accounted for perhaps a third of the 600-strong audience at the National Theatre's slightly threadbare auditorium to watch the Purcarete Oresteia. This contingent was made up not of school groups, but of couples and clusters of friends. In the West End, it seems, we must rely on the Hollywood-inspired gunplay of Ben Elton's Popcorn or the sexual politics of Closer to convince the young that live drama can be as compelling as the movies. In Craiova, thanks to Purcarete, all you need is Apollo, Athena and a chorus of pregnant Furies.

Purcarete has condensed the text of the three plays - Agamemnon, Choephoroe (The Libation Bearers) and Eumenides (The Furies) - to barely half their full length, although the plot remains intact: Agamemnon returns to Argos from the Trojan war and is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, who is then murdered by their son, Orestes, whose subsequent trial and acquittal in Athens give rise to a new, patriarchal age of peace and unity.

With nine surtitled performances remaining on the British tour, anyone who loves theatre should seize their chance to watch Aeschylus's masterpiece through the eyes of a director whose approach could hardly be less like that of Peter Hall, the man responsible for the most widely seen English staging of the trilogy.

Hall's 1981 Oresteia, the product of six months of research and rehearsal, ran for 65 sell-out performances at the Olivier and was broadcast by Channel Four in 1982. As in the plays' inaugural performances, at Epidaurus in 458 BC, male and female roles were played by men, all of whom were masked. Any hint of anachronism was banished. This was not, however, authenticity for authenticity's sake. Hall explained in his autobiography how he came to believe that "Greek plays are impossible without the mask... its very mystery solved not only the problem of expressing unbearable feeling, but also how to make the unending laments of the chorus understandable to a modern audience".

Bucharest-born Purcarete takes a different view. "To try to mimic ancient images with masks is not interesting to me, because we don't really understand them," he says. "I treat these texts as if they were written yesterday - with no thought to historicity. I try to create an image which should be clear for a modern audience."

His idea of clarity means choruses and individual characters performing without masks, male characters played by men and female characters by women, with a mixed chorus. The choruses' "unending laments" are heavily edited and occasionally brightened by unexpected physical comedy. Purcarete is happy to introduce anachronism: with their double-breasted grey suits and leather briefcases, the chorus of Old Men in Agamemnon look like pensioned- off apparatchiks. These touches soften but do not negate the unspeakable horror of watching a family destroyed by primal violence.

That the essence of Aeschylus's drama is neither swamped by Purcarete's idiosyncratic vision, nor somehow mummified by Hall's historicity, illustrates Purcarete's belief that: "These texts are so rich you can tell the story in any way you choose."

Even if they continue to arrive only at intervals of 15 or more years, productions like these keep Greek drama alive at a time when, in Britain, academic interest in the civilisation from which they emerged is minute. More than one million enrolled at UK universities in the past four years - just 12 of them chose to read classical Greek as a single honours degree.

Since 1991, Purcarete's fixation on the classics has evolved through Craiovan productions of Ubu Rex with scenes from Macbeth, Phaedra, Les Danaides and Titus Andronicus, all of which have been performed in the UK to great acclaim. Even if post-revolutionary Romania had a David Hare figure writing state-of-the-nation plays, the 48-year-old director would not be interested. "My taste is for classical literature because it is the most modern literature possible," he explains from his office at the Centre Dramatique Nationale in Limoges, where he has been director for the past year. "The huge distance of history between our time and Aeschylus or Shakespeare gives the plays a perspective on essential acts of humanity that makes them wonderfully clear."

The grotesque tyrant and his wife in Ubu Rex resembled the Ceaucescus, and it was the parallel between "the birth of democracy" at the end of Eumenides and the contemporary political situation in Romania which led Purcarete to tackle The Oresteia. "I was drawn to what happens when people must abruptly deal with the problem of democracy - a situation that applies not just to Romania but to many other countries in Europe."

Where Hall's Oresteia ran for four and a half hours, Purcarete's lasts 160 minutes, and it is the Choephoroe, the tale of Orestes' return, reunion with his sister, Electra, and vengeful murder of Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, which has borne the brunt of the cuts: a text that runs for 30 pages in my paperback edition has been cut to just 30 lines.

We are accustomed to seeing Sophocles's version of the same events in Electra, a play used to test the talents of our greatest actresses. Purcarete permits the actress playing his Electra a single couplet, and, with spectral lighting, mesmerising choreography and jarring stabs of cello and synthesiser music, transforms Choephoroe into a nightmarish, 15-minute dumbshow.

By eliminating the prolonged, tense build-up to the murders - a mirror image of Agamemnon - he misses the terrible symmetry of the trilogy's tit-for-tat violence. By choosing to devote a far greater proportion of the evening to the Eumenides, he invites us to dwell less on the gripping agonies of individuals in extremis than on a debate ("Is husband-murder more heinous a crime than matricide?") which the director is happy to admit is rather dull.

"It's a paradox that, from an ideological point of view, the most important part of the trilogy for me is the most boring part theatrically," he says. "Nothing happens in Eumenides. But I wanted to keep it boring." After the passion of parts one and two, he argues, the audience must share the calm and reason of part three.

However it is staged, The Oresteia is certain to have a greater impact on audiences who have experienced painfully direct contact with what Purcarete calls "the logic of tribal blood revenge". His desire for his production to be seen beyond Romania, in "other places where the story is more than just a piece of literature", makes the last of The Oresteia's British dates the most tantalising, since it takes place in a community scarred by a 30-year cycle of killings which finally may have come to an end following the creation of a new kind of democratic assembly. The one-off performance in Belfast's Waterfront Hall in four weeks will, according to Sean Doran, director of the Belfast Festival, be the first time that the trilogy has ever been performed professionally in Northern Ireland.

Doran booked the production after seeing it in Berlin, principally because of its brilliance as a piece of theatre, and also, he says, "because there are powerful resonances in The Oresteia for a country which is itself moving away from a tribal, warring society. It might sound crass to make a direct comparison between The Oresteia and what's happening here. But when I brought the Fiona Shaw Electra to Derry for three performances in 1992, the local situation made the atmosphere in the audience much tenser than when I'd seen the production in England. The Oresteia is coming to life in Northern Ireland for the first time at the right time."

To prove how history shapes our perspective on classical drama, contrast the topical charge of an Ulster Oresteia in 1998 with the response to the first ever British production of the trilogy, at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford, in 1904. It was directed by one FR Benson, whose amateur staging of Agamemnon in Greek at Balliol, Oxford, in 1880, is thought to have been the first production of Aeschylus for 2,000 years. Benson played Orestes (in a nicely Oedipal piece of casting, his wife was Clytemnestra) and Black and White magazine recorded that his stated aim was simply "to illustrate the main points of difference between Shakespeare tragedy and classic drama".

Just as Purcarete's artistic goals are more sophisticated than that, so his box-office prospects are far better than Benson's were in the days when Greek drama had yet to establish a foothold in the repertoire. Reviewing the first night of the 1904 Oresteia, the Daily Mail's Special Correspondent noted that "the cheaper parts of the house were not as well filled as they might have been, [because] all your ordinary Stratfordian knows of Aeschylus is that it is not a Warwickshire name".

'The Oresteia' is at Birmingham Rep, 19-24 October (0121-236 4455); Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 27-28 October (0131-529 6000); Waterfront Hall, Belfast, 15 November (01232 665 577).