THEATRE / Making a crisis out of a tragedy: Paul Taylor reviews Ariane Mnouchkine and Le Theatre du Soleil's four-part production, Les Atrides at the Robin Mills in Bradford

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The idea of dancing on someone's grave is given a savagely literal twist by Orestes in Ariane Mnouchkine's production of Les Atrides. Having hauled on the bloody corpses of his mother and her lover, Greek drama's number one matricide here proceeds to execute a clenched, stamping dance of violent exultation. This action jeers at the dead bodies, but what makes it breathtaking theatrically is the sense you get from Simon Abkarian's performance that underneath the impious taunting there is terror.

Orestes is far from being the only hoofer in this four-play cycle which comprises the Oresteian trilogy preceded by Euripides' Iphigenie a Aulis. From the jubilant, skirt-swirling chorus of girls in the first play to the amazing, self-satisfied cross-stage glides of Shahrokh Meshkin Ghalam's beautiful, arrogant Apollo in the last, dancing is the central driving force of these productions. The style throughout, like the dazzling costumes and music, is synthesised from various Asian traditions. Nietzsche declared that dance was how men walked before the fall. If so, it's a habit that seems to have remained as the one ironic vestige of the unfallen state in the brutally post-lapsarian world of these plays.

Visiting Britain for the first time in 20 years (thanks to a grant from the European Arts Festival), Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil has come for just eight performances (ie, twice through the cycle) to a specially created venue, a huge extension to a woollen mill on the outskirts of Bradford. In one sense, though, it would be misleading to say they have brought Les Atrides to Bradford. Rather, Bradford is playing host while they bring Les Atrides to a lot of theatre-folk. Indeed, to judge from all the famous faces in the audience, certain parts of London must have been like ghost-towns over the weekend.

Downstairs at this culturefest, you can buy a drink and do your back in at the same time by straining over the indoor drystone-walling that, for some reason or other, separates you and the bar. Or you can buy a Les Atrides T-shirt (just the gift for Mother's Day). The high ceiling is bedecked with so many swags of canvas that you feel it isn't just the Greek Fleet at Aulis that is stranded, waiting to set sail. Upstairs, in intolerable heat, the plays unfold on a stunningly simple set - a vast wooden corral that has the feel of an empty, sunbaked bullring, haunted by the memory of earlier bloodlettings.

In trying to reconcile Euripides' play with Aeschylus' trilogy, Mnouchkine risks distorting both. Written some 40-odd years after the Oresteia, the Iphigenie a Aulis has a more sceptical perspective than the work of Aeschylus, who knew Athens in her days of glory. Around the central plot-proposition, that Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia before the Greeks can sail to Troy, Euripides paints a deeply debunking picture of 'heroes' motivated by shabby expediency and puffed-up pomposity. Crucially, the girl's mother, Clytemnestra, does not escape censure either, emerging as a foolish, selfish women.

This is not the case in Mnouchkine's production, where the focus is firmly on the loving, grieving matriarch. As though singled out for their humanity, the beautiful civilised features of the great actress Juliana Carneiro da Cunha who plays her are alone in not being covered with an archaic mask of make-up. One of the production's most moving moments comes when an anguished Clytemnestra crawls round the stage, snatching desperately at the ankles of the chorus in a frustrated effort to bring them down as they begin to join Iphigenia in her ecstatic dance of patriotic, self-sacrificial resolve.

The result of all this is that the character carries with her into the Oresteia some excess baggage of audience sympathy. It's primarily as a wronged mother, not as an adulteress and a jealous wife, that we continue to view the Clytemnestra of Aeschylus.

Comments on Mnouchkine's work tend to be clammy with uncritical piety: 'we are in the presence of greatness', etc. Watching these productions, there are indeed times when you are in the presence of greatness, but others when you are very much not. A continuous atmospheric commentary on the proceedings is provided by Jean-Jacques Lemetre, who, like a very elevated form of one-man-band, plays a bewildering variety of weird instruments from a raised platform at the side. One unforgettable moment is when Nirupama Nityanandan's excellent Cassandra, a tiny figure weighed down with her ivory Kabuki robes, seems to be attacked by an oncoming swarm of prophetic visions, created by Lemetre's buzzing strings, before she is felled by a crashing wave of sound.

An eery urgency is imparted to the action by the use of a blue trolley which glides noiselessly from under the auditorium up the central aisle, landing its passengers on stage with a disturbing suddenness. As with many of the recurring effects in this production, you feel that this has been exhausted well before the end, but it does produce memorable frissons, as when the disguised Orestes, about to exit, almost leaves his knife on stage and retrieves it with a jokey, silly-me smile at his as yet unsuspecting but rattled mother. He then steps on the trolley and strikes the unnerving pose of a man with an inscrutable, deadly mission as it whisks him away.

Apart from the kitsch waxworks masquerading as the corpses of the dead Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and an insipidly stagey idea in which the mattress on which they lie resists the efforts of Electra and the chorus to drag it off, the worst lapse of imagination is the depiction of the Furies in Les Eumenides. Representing the instinctual terror that even an enlightened, rational system of justice cannot afford entirely to dispense with, these creatures must above all be frightening. But the loping baboons with canine mouths just look rather endearingly ridiculous.

The final hint that these creatures are still potentially savage does not atone for the sickeningly cute and sentimental way in which their bag-lady spokespersons are shown buddying up with Athena. These crones mischievously try to copy the goddess's dance steps and roguishly restrain themselves from attacking her. It's kisses all round and maternal adjustments of each other's clothes. Here, Mnouchkine seems to be in collaboration with Walt Disney rather than Aeschylus, whose thoughts about justice are consequently done less than full justice.

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