First Night: Greek tragedy, Romanian style

Oresteia Barbican Centre London
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The Independent Online
THE ROMANIAN director Silviu Purcarete thinks big. Not for him the claustrophobic intensity of classical tragedy performed in a studio space with a small carefully individualised chorus - the style favoured by British directors.

Two years ago he brought across a production of a restored trilogy by Aeschylus, Les Danaides, which choreographed no fewer than 100 bodies in a story of refugee daughters taking revenge for their enforced marriages.

As always with Purcarete, there were unforgettable stage pictures: on the honeymoon night, the 50 couples disappeared under the women's nightdresses which became the eerie candlelit tents where the men were trapped and butchered. But the sheer size of the chorus sometimes gave the proceedings an unintentionally comic feel, Greek tragedy as Busby Berkeley might have conceived it.

At the Barbican now, Purcarete is back with the National Theatre of Craiova company and another Aeschylus trilogy, the Oresteia. Watching it, I experienced misgivings similar to those which affected my enjoyment of Les Danaides, but these were outweighed by the imaginative power and penetration of the parts that worked.

Dramatising a momentous shift between a world of blood vendetta and the birth of a new order of law and democracy, the Oresteia begins outside the house of Atreus at the tense point where relief at the Fall of Troy is darkened by nervous premonitions. The production vividly communicates this foreboding. Vultures sit expectantly on the palace walls as the sky reflects the glow of the good-news signalling bonfire. The exhausted messenger who brings word of Agamemnon's return wallows exultantly in a trough of water, a pre-echo of the much less happy bath the king himself is about to take. I was unsure why Agamemnon and Cassandra arrived concealed in a crate that put one in mind of the wooden horse, since it is they who are ambushed and the Chorus of bald fat besuited briefcase-carrying Elders are given a distracting comic prominence, in particular when they start inexplicably keeling over.

The production confronts the fact that the trilogy concludes in a way that modern taste finds misogynist, with its view that killing a mother isn't a crime since only fathers create children. Not on the level of Peter Stein's Oresteia or that of Mnouchkine, this is none the less worth seeing.