Theatre: Murder in the first degree

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The Independent Culture
THE ROMANIAN director Silviu Purcarete likes to think big. Not for him the claustrophobic intensity of classical tragedy as performed in a studio space with a small individualised chorus. He's the man who choreographed 100 actors in Les Daniades a "restored" trilogy by Aeschylus that came to Britain two years ago.

Characteristically, this resulted in unforgettable stage pictures, as when 50 honeymoon couples crawled inside the women's bridal dresses that became the eerie candlelit tents where the husbands were trapped and slain. There was also, however, something inherently and unintentionally comic about watching a multitude behaving in unison. At times, it felt like Greek tragedy with a Busby Berkeley touch.

I have fewer misgivings about Purcarete's powerful National Theatre of Craiova production of the Oresteia. All the same, in the first play, the bored bloated Chorus of Elders in suits, shuffling round with briefcases and canes like escapees from a wind-up toy factory, still strike me as too intrinsically jokey ever to be taken seriously, particularly when they start keeling over.

Dramatising the shift from the world of blood vendetta to the birth of a new order of law and democracy, the Oresteia begins at that tense moment when relief over the Fall of Troy coincides with new anxieties and premonitions.

The production is at its best in capturing that mood of foreboding. Vultures have settled expectantly on the palace walls, as the sky behind glows with the blaze of the good news signalling bonfire. The exhausted messenger who runs in with the news of Agamemnon's homecoming delightedly flops into a water trough - an unnerving pre-echo of the much less refreshing bath the returned King will shortly take.

The Greek convention of keeping violence off stage is vigorously flouted here. We may not see the actual murder but the bath tub, with a blood- spattered Clytemnestra posed in triumph over her victim, is whizzed on from the side as the taps in the palace courtyard start to gush with water. It is highly arresting, though the horror slips into uneasy comedy, especially when Valer Dellakeza's slob of an Aegisthus starts using Agamemnon's corpse as a trampoline.

Later, with the body in silhouette, the tub transmutes into the tomb. This conceit means that Orestes can reach in and grip his father's hand: it's a lovely image for the way the murdered remain a live issue.

The production squarely confronts the problem that, in declaring that it is fathers who create children and thus murdering mothers is a lesser crime, the work resolves in a resoundingly patriarchal fashion. Purcarete incorporates a critique of this.

By presenting the Athenian citizens at the climactic trial as miniature marionettes, he implies that Athena is rigging their votes (though why this still comes out at 50/50 is a mystery).

And although Apollo has lulled the naked, pregnant Furies to some kind of calm at the end, the figure of Clytemnestra,silhouetted at the back, strikes an ominously dissident note.

At the Barbican to Saturday, then touring (0171-638 8891)

Paul Taylor