Molora, Barbican Pit, London
Greek tragedy in the heart of Africa
Friday 11 April 2008
Both chorus and conscience, the Ngqoko Cultural Group provide an extraordinary ambience and commentary in Yael Farber's South African version of the Oresteia. The six women and one man produce, from a drum, a Jew's harp, and a calabash and bow, a range of eerie thumps and twangs. They sway, stomp, brandish poles, and clap their hands, but, even at their most violent, their demeanour is always grave. Most impressive of all, these Xhosa people, from rural Transkei, produce, with their split-tone singing, a range of sounds that are human and animal, earthly and divine. They ululate and whinny, they weave complicated harmonies. They become, at one point, a herd of doom-saying beasts; at another, a flock of vengeful jungle birds.
The play itself, however, which Farber has written and directed, is not so consistently powerful. Farber concentrates on the end of the story, when Klytemnestra receives a visitor who she does not know is her son, Orestes, spirited away 17 years before by his sister, Elektra. Before this, we hear Klytemnestra recount the murder of their father, Agamemnon, and see her trying to force Elektra to reveal where she has taken Orestes. She does this with the means of torture and intimidation used on dissenters in the days of apartheid: the plastic bag tied over the head, the burning cigarette, the whip.
For the Greek revenge play is here tied to the recent history of South Africa, where rulers and the conquered have had to learn to be equals. One aspect of this process was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which, from 1995 to 1998, heard testimony from both oppressors and victims. Klytemnestra and Elektra allude to this by sitting behind a wooden table and speaking into a microphone. Elektra has been punished for her hatred of her mother, during Orestes' exile, by being forced to wait on table and eat on the floor; in the last lines of the play the white Klymtemnestra (Elektra and Orestes are black) delivers her judgment on white South Africa: "We who made the sons and daughters of this land servants in the halls of their forefathers, we know we are only here by grace."
The line is a magnificent one, but elsewhere Farber can sound portentous and opportunistic. Klytemnestra gleefully recalls hacking her husband to pieces: "The murderous shower wounds me, dyes me black. I revel like the earth when the spring rain comes down."
Elektra, quoting Shylock's speech justifying revenge, merely disconcerts us. The acting is uneven too. Jabulile Tshabalala (Elektra) and Sandile Matsheni (Orestes) convey their anguish with a moving delicacy and restraint, Mathseni especially touching in the contrast between his hesitant, fearful approach to matricide and his sister's furious demand for blood. Dorothy Ann Gould's Klytemnestra, however, her mouth fixed in a snarl, her voice throbbing with monotonous melodrama, arouses only irritation. Standing atop a table, holding an axe over her head with both hands and shrieking, she could be demonstrating that more is less.
The visual aspects of Molora are more inventive and disturbing. At the centre of the stage, as it is of the drama, lies a mound of earth, Agamemnon's grave. A table is placed over it on which Klytemnestra dines with the son who has come to turn her into meat. Orestes raises the axe over her but, at the height of his swing, freezes, and Elektra snatches it from him, ready to bring it down. In a heart-stopping moment, the chorus, stepping from the sidelines into the drama, surround her, disarm her, and carry her away, murmuring and caressing. "Molora" is the Sesotho word for "ash," and, as we are reminded, when fire is met with fire, all that will remain is ashes.
To 19 April. (020-7638 8891)
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove