|Do you want Radox or Badedas in your bath, darling?|
The highpoint of the version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia showing at the Almeida Theatre in London (my paywalled review in this week's Times Literary Supplement is pasted below) is the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra in their bathroom. Aeschylus invented almost everything important in non-comedic theatre; in this scene, described as it takes place by the raving, clairvoyant Cassandra, he demonstrated for all time the grim aptness of the bathroom as slaughterhouse.
|Corday became a heroine as France moved to right|
Is it the contrast between smooth ceramic surfaces and soft flesh, pools of water and spurting blood, violent blows and gentle laving? Or perhaps it’s the analogy between towels and shrouds, between a corpse floating in bathwater and an embryo in amniotic fluid.
The most famous subsequent bathroom death in theatre is Charlotte Corday’s stabbing of Jean-Paul Marat (1793), as dramatized in Act IV of François Ponsard's tragedy Charlotte Corday (1850). The play inspired a plethora of depictions, like this one by Baudry, which put Corday back in the historical frame from which she had been excised as a counter-revolutionary in 1793 by Jacques-Louis David.
|David's Corday-free Death of Marat|
Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon, the slayer of their daughter Iphigenia, because (1) there was no homicide court in Bronze-Age Argos and (2) she thought she was as well qualified as him to lead. Corday murdered Marat because (1) she thought the French revolution had Gone Too Far and (2) she had read Plutarch, having received an education equal to a man’s; Plutarch’s Lives tell of doughty ancient statesmen who stood up for their political principles.
|Skilful but morally vacuous art?|
This is what depresses me about the 20th-century equivalent of Aeschylus' and Ponsard’s bathroom scenes, the shower sequence in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Somewhere along the line, our public art renounced the duty to challenge and inform in a moral and political way. However innovative cinematically, however scary, watching a petty fraudster being slashed to pieces by a psychotic just doesn’t compare with bathroom murders which thrash out the fundamental contradictions in the Athenian democracy or revolutionary France.
|Clytemnestra and Agamemnon on ancient vase|
I’m in Los Angeles right now, to give a Getty lecture on the Oresteia’s politics, and am tempted to approach Hollywood godfathers with my idea for a movie version in which the bathroom showdown symbolises an insoluble problem of our day: e.g. American racism. It may make me naïve, but I’m still campaigning for serious public art that is also enjoyable. The ancient called this art that married the useful (utile) and the pleasurable (dulce). Yet another old ideal we would do well to revive.
TLS review, 'An Atmosphere of Emergency
Excitement has been mounting ever since January when Rupert Goold, the Artstic Director of the Almeida Theatre, announced a season of Greek drama. The first production to be unveiled is Robert Icke’s version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, billed as a ‘radical reimagining’ of this mammoth ancient masterpiece and its ‘first major London production’ for over a decade. The selection itself bespeaks confidence on the part of both Goold and Icke. The Oresteia is the sole ancient Greek trilogy of three connected tragedies to have survived from the classical Athenian theatre, and thus by far the most substantial ancient dramatic work in the repertoire. At its first performance in 458 BC it already changed the nature of tragedy, in locating the tragic action at a family home, rather than in a city square or sanctuary. It has influenced other epoch-making artworks including Hamlet (via Renaissance Latin cribs of Aeschylus) and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. To appreciate the Almeida team’s boldness we also need to remember that the Oresteia has rarely been attempted except by figures of legendary stature in the international theatre: towering above them all has been Peter Stein and his two extraordinary productions in divided Germany (1980) and post-Soviet Russia (1994). Icke’s self-assurance in essaying a new English acting version is thrown into further relief when one recalls that the last two Oresteias to be performed at the National Theatre were composed by titans of English poetry: Tony Harrison (directed by Peter Hall, 1981) and Ted Hughes (directed by Katie Mitchell, 1999) respectively.
My two criteria for assessing any contemporary production of an ancient Greek play are that it should be thrilling theatre and that its intellectual power should not fall too far short of the original’s. On the first count, the Almeida Oresteia is a triumph. Hildegard Bechtler’s design is impeccable; sliding glass doors divide the front of the acting area from its rear spaces, creating a tantalising hinterland of bathrooms and bedrooms where intimate and sinister encounters take place. The spectators feel their own prurience in needing to crane their necks and screw up their eyes in order to see these properly. A dynamic tension is created between extended the horizontal axis (the House of Atreus family dining table; the platform from which they address their public) and upward movements (the pious Agamemnon’s gestures to heaven; the officious Athena who presides over the closing lawcourt scene). The largely monochrome colour palette—white, black and several shades of grey—allows the few gashes of primary colour to make a startling impact: the young female victims Iphigenia and Cassandra both wear crocus-yellow, in ancient initiation rites the colour of pubertal girls’ dresses; both status and emotional intensity are flagged by crimson dressing-gowns and jackets.
The audience is kept spellbound for the best part of four hours, emerging exhausted from unremitting onslaughts on their senses and emotions. The production tests their physical powers of endurance, underlined by the brevity of the ‘comfort breaks’, during which an army of intimidating attendants constantly bark the information that the clock is ticking and that only a few minutes remain. Above the stage, an electronic clock appears every time a murder is about to take place, clinically recording the exact minute of death in ‘real time.’ More could have been made of this disquieting device in the final episode, since, in ancient courts, defence and prosecution speeches were given precisely the same numbers of minutes; ancient litigants performed against a water-clock resembling a giant egg-timer. Yet this Oresteia’s sustained rapidity, along with the sense of chronometric pressure on the spectator, is exciting and innovative. Even the most important human decisions often need to be taken precipitately, and the Greek tragedians, with their conventional ‘unity of time’, understood how important an atmosphere of emergency is for tragic theatre. Icke has discovered a way to evoke, in a contemporary manner, the sheer speed at which classical tragedy unfolds.
His Oresteia is essentially a new play based on parts of four ancient tragedies. The long opening section—more than an hour in length—serves to give us the ‘backstory’. Its action takes place ten years earlier than the action of the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (which begins at the end of the Trojan War), revealing the process by which Agamemnon brought himself to execute his daughter Iphigenia. There is a surviving ancient tragedy on this theme, Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, and Icke has used some of its encounters, notably a charged dialogue between Agamemnon and Menelaus. This scene makes the point that theirs was already a dysfunctional family, blighted by horrid crimes in the previous generation. But Icke’s objective is to create a sense of the domestic ordinariness of Agamemnon’s family—they bicker at the table and play noisy hide-and-seek; the harassed, neglected wife strains to gain her distracted statesman-husband’s undivided attention. The intimacy which the audience builds up with this family exacerbates the horror of the long silence just after Agamemnon administers a lethal pharmaceutical cocktail to his daughter Iphigenia. For we have come to know her well--her taste for the Beach Boys and her favourite cuddly toy, a floppy, long-eared hare. The hare is a typical example of Icke’s resourcefulness at finding theatrical equivalents for the dense verbal imagery in Aeschylus’s Greek: in the original Agamemnon, the action is symbolised in the sphere of religion by the reported portent of a pregnant hare, whose foetuses are torn from her womb by rapacious eagles. Similarly, while Icke dispenses with all choruses including the titular Libation Bearers of Aeschylus’ original central tragedy (slave women who pour libations on Agamemnon’s tomb), he reintegrates the libation trope in the bottles of red wine, favoured by Agamemnon, which Electra keeps on opening for him.
There are memorable episodes of riveting rhetoric, flamboyantly written and emphasised by ingenious use of live on-stage video-cameras and screens at the side of the auditorium. The best are Clytemnestra’s public address greeting Agamemnon home from the war, his painfully clumsy response, and her vaunting speech over his corpse a few minutes later. Twice the action explodes into unforgettable, chaotic violence. The bathroom murder of Agamemnon, complete with a mesmerising performance of Cassandra’s clairvoyant ravings from the under-utilised Chara Yannis, is the best theatrical rendition I have ever seen. The other spectacular highlight is the moment when through sudden darkness, blinding light and sound effects we realise that Orestes’ psyche suffered irreparable damage when he killed his mother. These moments alone are worth the price of a ticket—imaginative, committed, no-holds-barred enactment of devastating scenes first devised two and a half millennia ago. But there is perhaps a lesson to be learned here. These outstanding sequences happen to be the moments in Icke’s play which most closely reproduce Aeschylus’ original.
It is not that I have any reservations whatsoever about wholesale cutting, supplementing and adaptation of ancient plays. Perhaps the most theatrically powerful version of the Oresteia I have witnessed was Yaȅl Farber’s South African Molora (2003), in which a black Orestes decided not even to kill the white Clytemnestra who had persecuted him. In a transparent reference to the restraint of black South Africans post-apartheid, she was spared retaliatory violence. But something does go temporarily awry in the part of Icke’s Oresteia corresponding to Libation-Bearers, especially in the long scene between Electra and Orestes. This was sadly unconvincing. The problem lies less in the writing than in the acting, which was almost embarrassingly bad, especially in comparison with the electrifying performance of Lia Williams as Clytemnestra and Angus Wright as Agamemnon. These outstandingly powerful stage presences deliver master classes in physical tension and vocal control, as well as convincing everyone that they share a magnetic sexual attraction. Williams’ Clytemnestra is quite literally an impossible act for Orestes to follow.
As the action hurtles towards its climax, when Orestes is acquitted and the reciprocal blood-feud in his family ended, the setting moves from the presidential palace of Argos to Athens. During the trial of Orestes for his mother’s murder, most of the ensemble don lawyers’ gowns and shout at one another. A dishevelled elderly woman, apparently representing a Fury or Orestes’ psychosis, wanders around the stage, adding to the confusion. Things become increasingly chaotic as the litigious language flows. There is a rather belated attempt to make the audience think about institutionalised sexism, in line with Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement in The Second Sex that the Oresteia is the charter text of western misogyny. The argument was first made in the theatre by Ariane Mnouchkine’s unforgettable Les Atrides with the Théâtre du Soleil (1990). Mnouchkine’s was also the first of many productions, now including Icke’s, to give Clytemnestra a feminist twist by prefacing the Oresteia with Iphigenia in Aulis, and thus with the execution of Iphigenia.
If the patriarchy theme is inchoate and submerged, Icke’s play is clearly motored by two philosophical questions which overlap with psychoanalytical ones. The first question is ethical (how do we make decisions? What are the limits of our freedom to decide anything? How far does our identity as family members put pressure on that freedom?). The second is epistemological (how can we be sure of anything? What counts as incontrovertibly certain information? What is a reliable memory?) Agamemnon takes a long time deciding to kill Iphigenia. But he does so because his priest tells him that this has been commanded by the gods through signs. The madness of Orestes hampers both his ability to deliberate and his cognitive powers, especially his memory. Built upon this basic philosophical argument is an oft-repeated insistence on the inter-connectedness of everything: all actions have consequences not just for the agent but for those who interact with him or her. This is an Oresteia about the individual’s psychic experience of nuclear family trauma, but it is also complex, joined-up morality for a fast-paced digital age.
This brings us to my second criterion for assessing a modern production of an ancient drama—its intellectual cogency. An interpretation of the Oresteia as a study of the implementation of justice, however engagingly it exposes the problematic nature of legal concepts such as ‘intention’ and ‘evidence’, is rather conventional. It was Katie Mitchell’s interpretation fifteen years ago. The Oresteia is a much more political work than most modern productions succeed in conveying. It is not only a drama about juridical procedure, but a constitutional chronicle of unparalleled significance for democracy. It gives cosmic authorisation to the historical evolution of society from rule by hereditary monarchs in Agamemnon, through unaccountable tyrants who have swept to power by a coup in Libation-Bearers, to an astonishingly modern-looking and monarch-free constitutional democracy in Eumenides. The jurors’ vote, taken to determine Orestes’ fate, also symbolises the epoch-making transfer of executive power from the hands of rich dynasties to the 30,000-plus ordinary citizens of Athens who were male and free, a revolution which had reached a climax just a couple of years before the production of this masterpiece. Athena in Aeschylus’ Eumenides founds the Athenian democracy and begs her citizens to renounce the murderous factional in-fighting which at the time of the premiere of the Oresteia had caused bloodshed in the Athenian streets and the brutal assassination of the radical democrats’ leader. The Oresteia enacts the resolution of something far more important than revenge killings in an individual family—namely a lethal conflict between the lower classes and the hereditary aristocracy, involving sinister disappearances and acts of terrorism, in which the entire populace of Athens and her international allies had been mired for half a century. In the 1980s there were indeed productions which conveyed something of the magnitude of the trilogy’s societal significance—not only those by Stein and Hall but a pathbreaking performance in post-dictatorship Greece, directed by Karolos Koun. It would be good to see our own brilliant young directors aspire to the creation of a relevant, Greek-inspired drama of equivalently magnificent scope and profundity.