Edinburgh Festival Day 17: Breaking the sound barrier: Andrei Serban has tapped the sounds of ancient Greece to plumb the subconscious depths of modern-day Romania. Kevin Jackson reports

LEGEND has it that on the eve of one crucial by-election of the Sixties, Harold Wilson was alarmed at the prospect of Labour voters staying home to watch television rather than turning out for the polls; so alarmed, indeed, that he began to fantasise about coercing the BBC into screening an evening of such excruciatingly boring fare that even the most apathetic households would be driven out to vote. After pondering the problem for a while, he hit on the perfect formula. 'An evening of Greek tragedy,' grinned the Prime Minister. 'In the original Greek.'

The joke would have been lost on the crowd at the Edinburgh Corn Exhange last night who, having sat rapt through four hours of the aforesaid Greek Tragedy in the original Greek, treated its cast and director to roars, whistles and a standing ovation. To be sure, this piece - An Ancient Trilogy, directed by Andrei Serban and performed by the Romanian National Theatre of Bucharest (see review, page 13) - was not the usual decorous classical exercise as performed in the more traditional public schools and colleges. Even those Wilsonian floating voters might have been arrested by some of its weird, savage or eerily lyrical images.

At one moment, for example, they would have found themelves stuck inside a near-riotous crowd, witnessing the torchlit spectacle of a beautiful young woman with Sigourney Weaver crop being stripped naked, pelted with mud and straw, hauled around in a cart and forced to submit to the attentions of a gross rapist draped in a bearskin. Meanwhile, the mob of actors surged and jostled around and among the audience, howling with rage, terror or lust. Coronation Street, anyone?

An Ancient Trilogy revives productions which Andrei Serban first staged separately in the early Seventies, shortly after he had been given the chance of leaving his native Romania to work with the La Mama company in New York: Medea (1971), The Trojan Women (1973) and Elektra (1972). These versions of Euripides, and the decision to stage them in Greek (and some Latin - Medea interpolates lines from Seneca's play) owe a good deal to the period Serban spent working as assistant director to Peter Brook on the experimental play Orghast, which was conducted in an artificial language contrived by the poet Ted Hughes.

'After working on Orghast for a year I felt the need to continue those experiments in my own way,' says Serban, who after nearly 25 years in the West speaks rapid and mostly precise English. 'The reason for combining the Greek and Latin comes from the sheer emotional musicality of the languages. Greek has a pattern of very primitive, harsh consonants, and Latin has a very different power in its stronger vowels. So, at an emotional level, the explosion of those primitive Greek consonants and the strong vowels of the Latin made a good juxtaposition between, let's say, the male and the female, Jason and Medea.

'Of course, purists would complain that one shouldn't mix and make collages, but our interest was not to please the purists but to do a piece of theatre which truly speaks through the unknown values of sound. Sound can penetrate an audience at a level which is not intellectual but emotional; you understand nothing, but you understand everything. Medea is one of the most savage plays ever written about the subconscious of man and woman. To come even near to understanding the depth of that subconscious we have to experiment in the pattern of the sounds of Seneca and Euripides. Maybe they knew something, they had a secret key in the incantation of their language which is lost completely in translation. Any Medea in English, however great the actress may be, can never reach the richness, the musicality that there is in the original.'

As this account may suggest, the experience of the Trilogy is as much musical as visual and dramatic: its words are hissed, muttered, chanted, screamed and bellowed as well as sung to the music of pipes and drums. It's closer to a night at the opera than a standard evening in the theatre, not least because, as Serban explains, his startling stage pictures are all developed from 'sound ideas'. Impressive as the work may be, however, it might still seem that Serban was making a curious decision when he chose the Trilogy as his homecoming production for Romania in 1989, after all those years of directing theatre, opera and musicals in La Rochelle, Persepolis, Minneapolis, and Covent Garden. Far from it, Serban insists. 'For Romania, the Trilogy is a very appropriate thing. They've been through 20 years of complete suppression of the subconscious.' The Trilogy's themes - they include, broadly, the emergence of light out of darkness, and the attainment of a glimpse of transcendence, even optimism, after a long nightmare of suffering - are also some of the most valuable that could be placed before his countrymen. When asked whether this implies that he will be returning home for good, however, Serban gives a guarded reply.

'I'm cautious because Romania is a place of earthquakes - political as well as geographical. It's a very fragile territory, and since I have two children to think of, I can't take the responsibility of moving back there. I can do for my country as much as my country will allow me to do.'

But Serban will probably continue to work in his homeland for a few months each year; a production of The Cherry Orchard is planned, and he is keen to embark on more topical work, too.

'I'm trying now to find a new play by a young writer, something written now about the realities of Romania at the present moment. But it's hard to find because nobody knows how to write a play about all this confusion. To write about that would really take a lot of courage.'

Andrei Serban will be discussing his work at the Independent/Traverse Theatre conference tomorrow morning at 11am

(Photograph omitted)