FIRST NIGHT: The Oresteia: Audience warms to tragedy at ice rink

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE LIGHTS went down, a fiery torch flickered high above the cavernous floor, a chorus began to recite, and a dozen great-coated elders chanting in monk-like fashion took their place at a long table. Glancing to my right, I could just glimpse a sign saying 'Skates for Hire'.

The Edinburgh Festival yesterday unveiled a new art form, the theatre of endurance, staging a seven-hour 40-minute trilogy of Greek tragedies, Oresteia by Aeschylus.

That in itself would have separated the wheat from the chaff of theatre-goers. But in the search for true audience stamina with the added sense of the surreal, this was nearly eight hours of Greek tragedy, performed in modern dress, spoken in Russian (with sub titles), directed by a German, and staged at an ice rink - with dinner in the interval served in the neighbouring National Rugby Stadium of Scotland.

Advance ticket sales, the festival office admitted, were not particularly good. Last night there were rows of empty seats with only 700 of the 1,200 tickets sold. For the remaining two performances, less than half the seats have been sold.

However, it is likely that more seats will be taken. One does not need the legendary Edinburgh canniness to realise that, with advance tickets pounds 30 and day seats pounds 5, a last- minute decision might make sense.

Certainly, as one audience member remarked after the first three hours of murder, revenge, and emergence of democracy in ancient Greece, 'you don't see something like this every day'.

From the start, Peter Stein's production was curiously mesmerising, at times bathing the massive converted ice-rink floor in swathes of light, extracting passionate performances from the 40-strong cast of the Army Theatre of Moscow, using a choir throughout the production, and showing, with the old great- coated men debating like a doomed Politburo, the timelessness of the work.

Brian McMaster, director of the Edinburgh Festival, said: 'I have no regrets about putting this on. If we didn't do it, nobody would.'

And, though this is one production which will not recoup its costs, those who entered at 3pm emerged just an hour before midnight knowing they had seen a remarkable achievement in European theatre which more than compensated for numbed seats.

(Photograph omitted)