Conceptually, the prospect of an Ancient Greek language play is divisive. There are those in Oxford, and I probably count myself among them, who consider the idea attractive. There is plenty to whet the appetite about seeing things ‘as they were originally done’ – think Shakespeare’s Globe and you have it. Or the naysayers would have it their way; that a full-length play in a language they don’t understand is nothing short of a nightmare in which, under duress, their Classics teachers force them through the entirety of the piece, Clockwork Orange-style.
There were plenty of schoolchildren there, let me tell you.
The Choephoroi (Libation Bearers – shortened, understandably I think, to the name Clytemnestra) centres on the return of Orestes to Mycenae. Sacrificing at his father’s tomb, he leaves a lock of hair by which he is promptly identified with the arrival of his sister, Electra, who has come to make offerings at the tomb as well. There follows a lengthy funereal lament for Agamemnon and an attempt to get him on-side for Orestes’ plan; to kill Aegisthus and Clytemnestra and thus avenge his father’s murder. The first act of this translation ends with Orestes changing dress to that of a passing foreigner, through which device he will enter to palace. The second act follows his entry and destruction of the usurper Aegisthus’ house and the eventual murder of his mother. Ominously, the Furies – avenging spirits – appear to plague Orestes for his matricide.
I should like to praise all the cast for learning the Greek so well – especially the previously illiterate. It is important to put that impressive feat to one side, as that really is enough to win admiration. All of the cast were physically refined and drilled to imitate Raymond Blankenhorn’s and Rachel Beaconsfield-Press’ conception and realisation of the play in a Japenese Noh format. Jack Noutch’s catlike physicality springs to mind as something that worked particularly well in this capacity. What he had some trouble with was matching intonation with emotion, admittedly a hard task. Amber Husain was perfect in this capacity. Her speech rose and fell with fluency and even when I was not reading the surtitles I felt confident of what she was conveying. Similarly impressive was her precision in keeping time with the percussive steps characteristic of Noh performance. A special mention should be given to Helen Slaney’s nurse, who tempered comedy with tragedy well in her brief interlude.
A slight jarring note actually sprang from another such liaison. At the point when Orestes is going to kill his mother (convincingly and powerfully portrayed by Lucy Jackson) he strikes a ‘Japanese pose’ causing the audience to hoot with delight. I found myself laughing with delight at the knife wielding matricide standing in the palace door. The other sticking point in this sense was the apparition of a Clytemnestra-cum-snake figure that noodled around on stage during the funeral sequence but lacked the precise choreography so clearly observed elsewhere.
The most breathtaking thing about this piece was the production design. In its fallow moments, you had only to look at the sumptuous set to feel reassured. Paper screens, sashes, beautifully stylised columns and an imposing palace were a fantastic benefit to the play.
I hesitate to be the schoolteacher, but you should definitely see this. If not for the fact that it’s a theatrical rarity in language and frequency, then for its sheer style and conceptual cleanliness. You might even pick up some bloody Greek while you’re at it, too.