THEATRE / Fire down below: The Ancient Trilogy - Edinburgh Festival

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The Independent Culture
THE Edinburgh Corn Exchange, venue for Andrei Serban's An Ancient Trilogy, is next to the local abbatoir, which seems appropriate. On arrival, the audience is crammed into two bare waiting rooms, then, without warning, herded by the chorus down a dark corridor, into the auditorium.

Through the three plays, Medea, The Trojan Women and Elektra, Serban takes you on a journey from cloistered darkness to light and hope. The National Theatre of Bucharest perform the works with a combination of ritual, savagery and beauty. Serban's staging and his exceptional use of the chorus, babbling, muttering, whispering, turns the spectators into helpless witnesses to the deeds of the powerful.

Medea is pared down to a raw battle between Medea and Jason. Tethered to a board, her face livid, Maria Morgenstern's Medea writhes like a serpent until she finally loses her wits. The production is lit by fire and candles alone, which adds to the eeriness - while Medea is murdering her children, the chorus wheel in a pagan dance, flickering in and out of the firelight.

Staging the plays in ancient Greek, far from proving stultifying, allows language to be used purely as sound. The cast moan, incant and sing the text; Medea's ferocious curses come roaring from her, while in The Trojan Women Andromache, grieving at the loss of her son, raises the hair on the back of your head - first issuing a piercing scream, then a low howl.

This is the most powerful play of the three, sculpted so that it switches seamlessly from brutality to serenity - soldiers suddenly appear behind you, imparting a real sense of confusion and alarm and the cumulative fatigue of constant war. Elektra, by contrast, acted in bright light, is more rational and open, and also more stagy - its more uncomfortable moments include Elektra marching around holding an obviously distressed dove to symbolise the coming of peace at the end.

Despite dips, Serban's trilogy powerfully depicts dreadful feuding and the helplessness of those caught up in it. The portraits of women dealing with loss and revenge - Hecuba's stony grief, Medea's wild eyes, Elektra's smouldering anger - will stay in the memory.

Continues until Saturday (031-225 5756). Andrei Serban is interviewed on p 15.

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