THEATRE / Edinburgh Festival: War of the worlds: Paul Taylor on Peter Sellars' adaptation of Aeschylus' The Persians

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The Independent Culture
ON WESTERN stages, the fall-out from the Gulf war continues to descend. First off was Trevor Griffiths, who, in The Gulf Between Us (1991), turned from dialectical realism to Arabian Nights magical realism with a story that hinged on 'collateral damage' (the Allied bombing of a nursery) and the self-interested attempts to cover this up by the Iraqi authorities. Then came Sam Shepard's 1992 play States of Shock (first seen here last July), which was set in an anonymous American diner and reacted to the resurgence of US militarism with a savagely wacko reworking of the Abraham and Isaac myth: a gung-ho colonel is so unable to cope with the idea that his soldier-son neither died nor returned a hero that he takes refuge in the insane fantasy that the boy was killed out there, while seeking reassurance from his wheelchair- bound 'friend' that his son was not the victim of a 'friendly fire' incident.

Joining the post- hoc Gulf war artists now are the American director Peter Sellars and adaptor Robert Auletta, whose response, though equally anti- US, could not be more different from Shepard's all-American setting and personnel. Indeed, in choosing Aeschylus' The Persians as their explicit model, they have fastened on world drama's first and supreme example of a play which (a) covers a conflict in the very recent past, and (b) strives to see things from the point of view of the enemy just vanquished by the dramatist's compatriots.

There is one immediate difference worth noting, though, between the original Persians and the adaptation now on display in Sellars' production at the Edinburgh Festival. It's likely that Aeschylus himself and very many of his Athenian audience would have fought at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC - a disaster for the Persians, the news of which sets up shock waves of incredulity, grief, lamentation and salutarily chastened pride in the course of this starkly awesome dramatised dirge of a play. For Aeschylus and his fellow-Athenians, it had been a war between freedom and slavery. When you consider this, plus the fact that to be deemed pro-Persian could be a capital offence, then the leap of empathy and courage that made the original Persians possible must be accounted far greater than that achieved by Sellars and Auletta. They, after all, move in a world where to be anti your own country is no barrier to becoming the routine darling of the avant-garde. Our applause should be tailored accordingly.

Let me make two things clear. First, though I don't go the whole way with Sellars' attack, I do think the US played a less than edifying role in its relations with Saddam's Iraq; second, I have no problem whatever with the vigorous reworking of the classics. So why, then, did I remain unmoved (except to steady distaste) by this brutally gaunt production with its blasting evocations of bombings, its overlapping miked / unmiked voices, its gratuitous use of a deaf actor as the ghost of Darius (who silently signs, though relieved of any communication problem by a simultaneous voice-over) and its eclectic mix of Javanese dance, Middle Eastern-style music, etc?

Not principally, in fact, because of the incoherences in the parallel, though these are many and irritating. Xerxes united Asia, Saddam split up the Arab world; Athens is here the equivalent of the US, but we are significantly offered no equivalent of invaded Kuwait; and so on. Nor is it because of the preachy inertness in this version's various castigations (of, among other things, the TV censoring of the human misery this high-tech war inflicted).

No, my main objection is to this dismaying irony - that, while garnering credit for seeing themselves through the eyes of the enemy, Sellars, Auletta and Co are in fact engaged in displaying a characteristic (and counter-productive) American failing: an inability to imagine any other form of life than their own. Hence, the Iraqi household becomes a dysfunctionally Oedipal American family, the young, defensively cocky Xerxes / Saddam, who comes on towards the end, a crazy mixed-up kid who turns to megalomania because he's unloved by his father. Remove the insanity and you have James Dean in East of Eden. Unlike in the original, Xerxes here even gets to kiss and make up with Mom. There's a cultural imposition in this that sits unpleasantly with the broad intentions of the exercise. It's evident, too, in the ghastly clashes of register between the show's ritualistic elements and the frequent clumsy colloquialism of Auletta's script - as when the ghost of Darius says he wishes to lie in the earth and 'hopefully disintegrate'. Hopeful disintegration? Rot, I'd call it.

(Photograph omitted)