EDINBURGH FESTIVAL: Aeschylus on ice: A German director, a Russian cast, three Aeschylian tragedies, seven and a half hours and a hit: Paul Taylor on a winning formula

The final image in Peter Stein's magnificent seven-and-a-half hour Oresteia is of 12 men in modern suits peaceably processing to cast their votes by dropping a stone into one of two ancient urns. After the turmoil and horror of hereditary blood guilt in the preceding action, this spectacle of the birth of civil law and of a new democratic order could scarcely fail to be moving. An audience watching Stein's production is bound to experience the emotional impact particularly keenly, though, for the great German director has created the event with a Russian cast in the Russian language. Recognising how close to home the subject is for them (Stein was rehearsing the Oresteia in Moscow during the country's first free elections) brings home to you with a jolt how little, in essence, Aeschylus's trilogy is time- or culture-bound.

Not that there has been any glib updating. This is not the sort of production where Orestes and Pylades return to Argos as Baader-Meinhof terrorists, and you will look in vain for any trace of a Kalashnikov. Instead, the piece has a timeless-modern, archetypal feel, its ritualistic intensity achieved without recourse to the Greek masks of Peter Hall's production or the highly stylised Asian dance movements that drove forward Mnouchkine's Les Atrides. There's consequently a terrible, exposed immediacy about the many points in the production where drama reveals its origins in something more primitive and rite-like - the moment, say, when Electra and Orestes, crouched on their beloved father's tomb, pound its marble top with their fists in a mounting delirium of revved-up vengefulness against his murderer, while the black-garbed chorus strike frenzied attitudes and raise their voices in a high, thin keening wail.

Staged on the vast concrete floor of the Murrayfield Ice Rink with the audience arranged in an amphitheatre curve, the work unfolds with a wonderful clarity of focus. A massive black wall representing the royal palace dominates the view during the first two plays. At the end of both of these, there's the same ghastly image, as the latest gore-drenched, sword-wielding revenger slides out of the building on a sort of tray, the results of his or her handiwork laid out in obscene exhibition. The victims' blood, blatantly colourful in these monochrome surroundings, spills in a steady sickening trickle to the ground. The hallucinatory similarity of the staging conveys the recurring nightmare element in these killings. It's like a visual rhyme, except of course that it's an off-rhyme, for the crazedly exultant Clytemnestra is the butchered meat the second time round.

The production is just as adept at transmitting a sense of psychological horror. There's a superbly unsettling touch in the eventual encounter between Evgueni Mironov's movingly youthful Orestes and his mother Clytemnestra (an electrifying Tatiana Doguileva). Trying to dissuade him from murdering her, the desperate woman fights to restore Orestes' sense of their kinship by exposing the breast that once gave him nourishment. Here, though, the tip of the son's sword toys with the weight of the gland, then settles threateningly on the nipple, foiling Clytemnestra's struggle to embrace him and finally nudging her inside to her death. They may be at arm and sword's lengths, but there's a polluted intimacy in the encounter (Orestes stares at the breast rather than her face) that makes you feel more shudderingly the force of the taboo he is about to violate.

For the first two plays, with their chorus of old men with walking sticks, the rhythm is perhaps unnecessarily slow, though what the staging lacks in pace it makes up in telling strokes. For example, Cassandra, Agamemnon's trophy of war, is brought in on his chariot hidden under a sheet like some inanimate possession. It's oddly nerve-wracking that for so long this hyper-sensitive seer should be known to us only as a silent, or later on, a twitching, screaming shape. Visually austere, the production intermittently flares with a deceiving beauty. The carpet laid out for Agamemnon's entry is created from strewn layers of crimson shirts which eerily resurface, now all connected to each other, as the net in which he was fatally trapped.

With the final play, Eumenides, Stein has adopted a high-risk strategy. It's as though he is trying to incorporate into it some of the irreverent spirit of those lost satyr plays which rounded off tragic trilogies like the Oresteia. Consequently, Athena, dressed in a slinky silver lame number and with hair bobbing like the coiffure in a mousse ad, is here part movie star, part game-show hostess. Descending from the ceiling on a deluxe trapeze, the gold wreathed, white-suited Apollo is a boorish, bad-tempered playboy, who strums his lyre like a banjo and bounds across the stage in ridiculous, cod god fashion.

Miraculously, this sudden levity of mood does not trivialise any of the issues in the great (if very non-feminist) contest between the matrilineal law of blood (the Furies here, barking grey-haired hags) and the law of the new court. After the compromise is reached, the jury members bundle the willing hags up in purple cloths, resulting in a salutarily ambiguous image. Are they now mummies or chrysalides? As well not to be complacent about that instinctual terror that even the most rational, enlightened society cannot legislate away.

Box-office: 031 225 5756

(Photograph omitted)

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