Orestes at Silk Street Theatre review ***

Orestes

Guildhall School, Silk Street Theatre, 27th March 2019

Even the most casual reader of this blog will observe that the Tourist spends an inordinate amount of time in a theatre. A recipe for pity or jealousy depending on your point of view. Despite this satisfying his urge to hoover up the, er, classics of Classical Greek drama is proving surprisingly elusive. There isn’t as much of it about as you might expect. I appreciate that this might be the Firstest of First World Problems but it has, nonetheless, come as a surprise. So first sniff of a Sophoclean, Euripidean or Aeschylean (??) opportunity and the Tourist is straight in. As here. Also taking advantage again of the chance to see tomorrow’s acting and creative talent today, this time from the Guildhall School.

Orestes was written by Euripides and first performed in 408 BCE and tells the story of young Orestes after he has killed his Mummy. It follows on from the events catalogued in Electra, the play about his sister, dramatised by both Euripides and Sophocles, and in between The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides by Aeschylus, the latter two plays in his trilogy The Oresteia. In fact the well educated amongst you will be aware that young Orestes is perhaps the central character in this, to say the least, dysfunctional family tale. He crops up in something like a quarter of the extant plays by the three Greek tragedians.

He kills Mum Clytemnestra to avenge the death of Daddy Agamemnon by said Mummy. Mummy’s justification being that Agamemnon had, before setting off to bash the Trojans because they pinched his brother Menelaus’s wife Helen, (she of the ships), killed little daughter Iphigenia, Orestes’s Sis, to secure some favourable wind. Not a relieving flatulence you understand, but wind to set the fleet off to Troy. Now some would also have it that naughty Clytemnestra actually recruited lover Aegisthus, (who had a claim to the throne of Mycenae albeit via an incestuous route), to kill Hubby. So Orestes, taking no chances, bashed him in as well.

And you thought GoT was complicated. Next Christmas, when it’s all kicking off, cheer yourself up by thinking at least it isn’t as bad as this, the Atreus family curse. In fact it all started with Tantalus, oen of Zeus’s sons, who, to get back at his Dad and the other gods, boiled up his son for them to feast on after they had banished him, Tantalus that is, for having nicked some ambrosia. (Who would have thought they liked rice pudding so much). Tantalus goes to hell, the son, Pelops, is revived but, after some chariot race fixing skullduggery and general cursing, Pelops’s boys Atreus and Thyestes then fall out. Affairs, and some more pie based cannibalism, mean that the next generation, the generation described above, inherits the curse.

And so to this play. Electra opens up with a quick “and previously in the House of Atreus” synopsis whilst a weary Orestes kips next door. Auntie Helen swans in wanting to make an offering at Clytemnestra’s grave, the chorus of Argive women pitch up and Orestes awakes, tormented by Furies. Rough night. Uncle Menelaus and his father in law, so Orestes’s Grandad, Tyndareus, arrive, and Orestes makes his pitch for mercy to then, requesting an opportunity to talk to the Argive men. Cue discussion of the tensions between divine justice and natural law. Menelaus takes a stern line though. After all the Greek people have just about reached the end of their tether what with going to war for years just to get his missus Helen back and are in no mood to listen to any appeals for clemency.

Orestes, with his mate Pylades and Electra, then go direct to the assembly but this fails to forestall the death penalty for Brother and Sister, so the trio hatch a further play involving, you guessed it, more murder, this time of Helen and her daughter Hermione. Helen vanishes, but the trio capture Hermione, as well a slave who saves his own skin with some rousing argument. Menelaus catches the conspirators in the act ……

….. and then, ta-dah, deus ex machina in the form of the god Apollo who sets things to rights by explaining that Helen is in the stars (whaaaaaat), Menalaus must go back to Sparta, Orestes to Athens where the court will acquit him, after which he must marry Hermione, oh, and Electra will marry Pylades. Job done. Humans can go away in peace. Apollo can go back to arching, averting evil and all round being beautiful. As usual with Euripides, the gods don’t come across as the sharpest tools in the toolbox, their relationship with the humans is messy, the nature of justice is questioned and war is, as sagely observed by Boy George, stupid.

The director here Charlotte Gwinner, who has had spells at Sheffield Theatres, Liverpool Everyman and the Bush, opted for the prose translation by one Kenneth McLeish. Now as I am new to this game so have no idea how one translation differs from another, though I can imagine there are some high faultin’ verse options, but there is no messing about here. On with the action and as idiomatic as you like. Mind you I see Mr McLeish translated the complete Greek drama, all 47 plays, as well French farces, Ibsen and much, much else. Clever fellow.

Added to this was an impressive design concept courtesy of Simon Daw and equally uninhibited sound from Elizabeth Purcell and lighting from Guildhall student Christopher Harmon. I see young Harmon wants to make a career of this. On this evidence he will. The split level set showcases a dark, colonnaded underbelly, think vandalised car park/temple underneath a promenade which opens up at the end to reveal …. an Arcadian Olympus. Against this a majority of the final year acting students are able too strut their collective stuff. One or two were familiar from the four/five hander Detroit earlier in the season. I hate singling anyone out but I was very impressed by Uri Levy’s articulate and full throated, delirious but not mad, Orestes and, especially the Electra of Mirren Mack. And the members of the Chorus, complete with school uniform, were also impressive complete with choreography and howls.

I guess I could imagine an interpretation that plumbed the rhetoric more effectively and, as always with these productions, some of the actors are asked to play characters well beyond their years, which they gamely do, but as an astute, compact (90 minute) intro to the play my profound thanks to the Guildhall School. More please.

Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****

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Oedipus

Tonneelgroep Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 17th May 2018

The Tourist sets off to Amsterdam to see the new version of Oedipus from the mighty Toneelgroep Amsterdam. As well as his first visit to the Concertgebouw and a chance to reacquaint himself with one Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Tourist finally blogs as a Tourist.

What was the attraction. Oedipus first. Your man Sophocles could write a drama, no doubt about that, and for me, this, Oedipus the King (Rex or Tyrannus), tops his other oft-performed work, Antigone, (though that is still a cracker of a story). These two plays, in a trilogy, sandwiched Oedipus at Colonus where our unfortunate hero leaves Thebes with his daughters and proceeds to pop his clogs after a lot of philosophical chat.

I hope one day to see an adaption of Sophocles’s version of Electra, (all three Greek tragedians had a pop at this story), and Ajax, the miffed warrior who, surprise, surprise, tops himself. I hope, as has occasionally happened, some clever creative will also see the potential in Philoctetes, (wounded soldier on high horse – metaphorically of course – who doesn’t want to fight again). I gather the least interesting of Sophocles’s seven remaining plays is Women of Trachis.

Anyway, as you almost certainly know, the plot of Oedipus the King is an absolute belter. It’s been hard for any writer to top this, for sheer OTT intensity, ever since 429 BCE. That weirdo Freud even named a theory after it. Unwittingly kill your Dad and marry your Mum. It doesn’t end well.

How to adapt this though is the perennial creative conundrum. Which brings me to the second reason to hop on a train to see this. (Yes it is now possible to take the direct train from London to Amsterdam if not yet the return. Cheap as chips, door to door no longer than a flight. And so much more civilised. The bit from Brussels to Amsterdam was pretty much empty).

Namely director Robert Icke. For those that don’t know, Mr Icke, at just 32 years old, is the wunderkind of British theatre direction, though there are many others who match him in my opinion. He was responsible for the revelatory Almeida Hamlet with Andrew Scott, the recent Mary Stuart, 1984, Uncle Vanya and Mr Burns, all at the same venue, (where he is Associate Director), and The Red Barn at the National Theatre. Not all perfect but in many cases mightily close. Yet, of his work to date, probably the most breathtaking was his Oresteia, which even managed a West End transfer after its Almeida run.

Here he took Aeschylus’s mighty trilogy, dispensed with the chorus, pumped up the back story, gave the Gods a court-room at the end to weigh up Orestes’s guilt, (with a bit of audience participation), and carved out a family revenge drama of startling power, where black and white is mutated into every shade of grey, and where death is viscerally real. His adaptation translates the poetry into something more immediate which any audience can grasp. Greeks doesn’t get any better than this.

So no wonder he was invited into the Toneelgroep party to have a go at Oedipus. And there is a lot that Mr Icke has in common with the masters of TA, Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld. The set of Oedipus is one of the modern, faceless, corporate offices which IvH and JV used so effectively in Kings of War and Roman Tragedies. Though given Mr Icke’s set up for Oedipus, a campaign headquarters on the night of an election result, Hildegard Bechtler’s design could hardly be more appropriate. As it happens Ms Bechtler designed the Hamlet set so she knows the Icke drill. The TA stage in the Stadsschouwburg is wide and deep like the Lyttleton. I reckon you could sit anywhere, (and seats are a bargain €30 or so), and see everything. As well as the set, the use of video (Tal Yarden) and screens, a bit of on-stage eating in a family dinner, the modern, relaxed dress, the sound of Tom Gibbons and the lighting from Natasha Chivers, all echo the TA aesthetic. Mr Icke also borrows freely from his own back catalogue, most noticeably with the giant digital clock counting down on stage, representing the time to the election result, but more importantly the revelation underpinning the prophecy. The domestic interplay, the interior setting, the on-stage suicide of Jocasta though thankfully not Oedipus’s gouging, (here with heels not dress pins, ouch), the bickering over the family dinner, the strategising, all will be familiar to those who have seen Oresteia.

The set-up is brilliant. We see a video of Oedipus talking to the press after the election has closed. He promises to clean up the plague which is debilitating Thebes. Here though the plague is shorthand for the political corruption and economic incompetence of the previous administration. “The country is sick”. He is offering a bright new future. “Yes we can” or “drain the swamp”. Take your pick. He also, on the hoof, commits to investigating, and getting to the truth of, Laius’s murder. Cut to the loyal speechwriter/adviser Creon, played here by Aus Greidanus Jr, having a go at Oedipus for making this risky promise. Tiresias (Hugo Koolschlin) is wheeled in to deliver the prophecy. Our first opportunity to see the nasty side of Hans Kesting’s Oedipus as he angrily dismisses the blind old boy’s “nonsense” and turns on Creon who he reckons wants the job of leader. Marieke Heebink’s Jocasta talks him out of sacking Creon, (no need for a chorus and executions in this scenario!), and we are on to the killing at the cross-roads.

But here Laius (Jocasta’s first hubby) is the victim of a road accident (limos not chariots obvs), and Oedipus starts to piece together his own accident story with the established version, questioning the Chauffeur, played by Bart Slegers. You know the rest …… and if you don’t you should. The way Robert Icke fits his version of the plot to the “original” is artful and ensures that the last third or so of the production is as powerful as it should be.

What Mr Icke also intelligently lays on top is the family dynamic as we see “Mum” Merope (Freida Pittoors), consumed by the agony of watching Oedipus’s unseen “Dad” Polybus dying whilst all Oedipus cares about is the prophecy and, here, his route to power, daughter Antigone (Helene Devos) and sons Polynices (Harm Duco Schut) and Eteocles (Joshua Stradowski). Their is some conflict between the two lads: remember they go on to bring Thebes to its knees by knocking seven bells out of each other. The entourage is rounded out by faithful retainer Corin (Fred Goessens) and assistant Lichas (Violet Braeckman).

The supporting actors are uniformly marvellous but it is Hans Kesting and Marieke Heebink who dominate the stage. Which brings me to the third reason to nip over to Amsterdam to see this. The Tourist considers Hans Kesting to be the best male actor in the world and Marieke Heebink to be the best female actor. They proved it once again here. No fear you see, massive emotional range and immense physicality. No point holding back as the revelations tumble out in Oedipus and, trust me, they don’t. The scene were Jocasta explains how she was abused by Laius, and conspires to smuggle her baby away, is unbearably moving. Love is about the trickiest emotion to capture on stage. These two show exactly how to do it.

So why just 4* and not the 5* that you might expect from this obviously gushing fan of the play, the ensemble and the director. Firstly there is maybe, as I allude to above, a bit of a sense that we have seen this all before. The setting works, how “fate” brings a “good, man” down, and, specifically whether it pays for a politician to be “honest”, but the look and feel is maybe just a bit too close to Mr Icke’s previous work. More importantly the text is maybe a little too direct. Remember I was following a sur-titled English translation of a Dutch adaption by Rob Klinkenberg of the original Greek filtered through numerous prior translations. This presumably makes its literalness even more literal. Helps plot and message but leaves poetry on the table. In TA’s other work I have seen, the Shakespeare for example, this has not been a constraint, the language still shines. In IvH/JW’s Antigone conversely, which came to the Barbican, the translation by Anne Carson was too challenging, though this disappointed more through Juliette Binoche’s miscasting it pains me to say.

Still overall this is a great piece of theatre. If it ever wends its way to London you must see it. Otherwise we have Marieke Heebink as the lead in Simon Stone’s Medea to look forward to next year at the Barbican and Simon McBurney makes his directorial debut at TA at the Staadsschouwburg with a Cherry Orchard. Yum. This creative collaboration, amongst so many other reasons, is why Europe is a good idea. Though I doubt any of the dumb-arses in England who think differently would care.