On Wednesday the 28th of April, a live performance of the Greek tragedy Orestes took place at the Oxford Playhouse. This virtual, interactive and experimental production included creative new translations and discussions from leading academics rendering it unique. The online streaming of the little-known ancient Greek tragedy with a modern spin was exceptional. The play explores the ripples of trauma that follows crises of crime and punishment, and the difference between retributive and restorative justice. The setting of the play took place in the rooms of the respective actors, all of whom students at Oxford. The choice to perform in their rooms was significant. Performing in one’s room means performing in a very personal place and suggests very personal space; seclusion, protection. The rooms of the actors were bare but for a few pieces of furniture- instead focus could be directed towards the unveiling of the dynamic and the unfolding ideas of Euripides.
What makes this ancient myth significant to the present day and worthy of watching is this transition from the archaic to the modern.
It should be noted that the Orestes of Euripides marked the change which had taken place in the thought and intellectual life of Athens since the Oresteia of Aeschylus was performed. The blood-stained story of the house of Atreus and the tale of Orestes echoes the history of the modern Greek state. The tragic myth spans a period from the fall of Troy to the foundation of Areopagus. Oxford Playhouse’s Orestes certainly employs most features of the legend of Euripides’s Orestes yet places emphasis on the studies of contemporary life, subject to the social and political conditions of the twenty-first century.
In Oxford Playhouse’s version we see Orestes killing Clytemnestra, his mother in a brutal act of revenge and forming a same-sex relationship with Pylades. A sexual relationship between two men would violate social norms. We see his particular experiences as a queer male, questioning notions of personal and collective identities. Concentrating on this dramatic twist, this sensitive portrait of a condition and a relationship has the tug of emotional truth. As society collapses, can Orestes and Electra trust the whispers of Helen, Menelaus and the gods?. Even though heroes were not perfect they had within them inherent faults, they still had a certain grandeur about them, however they are now brought low with a vengeance.
The Oxford Playhouse’s Orestes belongs to the tradition of postmodern theatre which plays a significant role in diagnosing the contemporary condition of man through classical texts. What makes this ancient myth significant to the present day and worthy of watching is this transition from the archaic to the modern. This relation between tradition and contemporaneity of postmodern aesthetics is critical in understanding why watching a play of the 6th century BC is still relevant in the 21st century. By deconstructing Euripides’ classical text we invest in the future of an ancient tradition, addressing important contemporary matters instead of reproducing finished clichés. The edge-of-the-seat effect was what made the performance worth watching, with its blend of revelation and withholding. The intense and nuanced performances, the queasy mix of fear and fury palpable with a small glimmer of hope, made Oxford’s Orestes a very capturing play.
Image Credit: Egisto Sani via Flickr/ License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0