THEATRE: Greek for beginners

Last time at the National, Peter Hall staged The Oresteia, in a new translation by Tony Harrison, with a chorus in masks, which stressed how remote and different these people were. This time at the National, Katie Mitchell has staged The Oresteia, in a new version by another Yorkshire poet - this time, Ted Hughes - with a chorus that spins round in wheelchairs and uses a typewriter, tape-recorder and cigarettes to show us how just- like-you-and-me these people are.

The theory of modern dress, presumably, is that if someone wears dark glasses or combat gear we are more likely to listen to what they say than if they wear a sheet. In Mitchell's new production, Apollo wears corduroys and a white coat and appears to work in a chemistry lab. Clytemnestra wears a floral-print dress, and her new bloke, Aegisthus, is a nightclub smoothie in dinner jacket and cream scarf. It could be the republican version of The Oresteia: the one without any majesty.

Of course if you wanted an authentic Greek experience you would have to leave your slaves at home, and probably your wife, too, and head off to an amphitheatre with only the elite section of the male population. On the way you would have to cast off any ideas gleaned from Christianity, the Enlightenment, romanticism, feminism, modernism or postmodernism. It is almost impossible to see a play through the eyes of an Ancient Greek. (It is hard enough for me to see a play through the eyes of some of my colleagues.) But we can be sure that, once there, distance was essential for grasping the plays' monumental scale.

The National has one theatre, the Olivier, specially designed for Greek tragedy. Mitchell decided to use one of the other two spaces available. Her Cottesloe production brings the Greeks up very close. I was sitting a few feet from Agamemnon's grave - a manhole, with red and white emergency tape around it and a video camera placed inside. Certainly, at this proximity, the pain can feel more immediate. When Clytemnestra stepped back from the grave, one of her stiletto heels squashed my foot.

We see the stylistic tension within the production from the first speech of this six-hour performance. The watchman is just a regular guy, pressing the veins on his temples and moaning about the boring nature of his job. His prosaic manner does not quite square with his description of the stars as a "glittering parade of lofty rulers". The power of Hughes's imagery fuses the two worlds of then and now in a way that eludes the production itself. The leading protagonists, in particular, find themselves caught between two acting styles, the elevated and the intimate, without finding authority in either.

The chorus fills in the history of the house of Atreus with the care of friends giving complicated road directions. When Anastasia Hille's Clytemnestra details the journey that the beacons of light made from Ida to Lemnos to Makistos to Saronis and Argos, a map is projected on to a back wall and torch lights point out those places, just in case any of us thought she might have been referring to another Ida, Saronis and Argos altogether.

Such a tone of patient explication extends from the bare bones of the plot to the big themes themselves. It was obviously bad news for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to get a decent breeze for his ships. But lest we forget what happened to Iphigenia, her ghostly figure wanders, gagged, round the stage during Agamemnon. After his death, Agamemnon wanders round the stage during the second part of the trilogy. Just in case we still have not twigged what all this may mean, Apollo opens a Red Cross medicine box in the The Eumenides and we hear the voice of Ted Hughes reading from the Four Quartets and reminding us that time past, time present and time future are inextricably linked. Additional information is provided by the camera picking out pages of books: the writings of Tom Paine, a description of the hydrogen bomb and a dictionary entry defining justice. It is the first production of a Greek tragedy I have seen that stages its own programme notes.

And that is a shame, because there are many fine performances here. Robert Bowman, Michael Gould, Sebastian Harcombe and Paul Hilton make a remarkable wheelbound chorus, and as Athene, Joy Richardson brings the evening to its forceful and moving conclusion, ending the cycle of violence and urging the Furies to put revenge behind them and resolve their differences through the state. "There is no hope nor future," says the chorus, "For a land/ Whose mind is split/ Into two, and where each half/ Strives only to destroy the other." In the light of last week's events in Northern Ireland, Aeschylus's trilogy needed no gimmicks to resonate loud and clear.

'The Oresteia': RNT Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 452 3000)

THEATRE CHOICE

RECOMMENDED

MACBETH

Swan, Stratford (01789 403403) to 18 March

Antony Sher stars in Gregory Doran's thrilling production.

JANE EYRE

New Ambassadors, WC2 (0171 836 6111) to 24 Dec

Polly Teale's astute and transfixing production for Shared Experience.

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS

BAC, SW11 (0171 223 2223) to 15 Jan

The irrepressible Phil Willmott turns to pistol-packin' cowboys and cowgirls.

OPENING THIS WEEK

BATTLE ROYAL

RNT Lyttelton, SE1 (0171 452 3000) now previewing, opens Thursday

A story about the Royal Family: Howard Davies directs Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale in a new play by Nick Stafford about Queen Caroline.

THE LADY IN THE VAN

Queens, W1 (0171 494 5040) now previewing, opens Tuesday Nicholas Hytner directs Maggie Smith in a new Alan Bennett play where two other actors play the author himself. RB

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little