On Thursday we braved the M25/40 trudge (complimented by beautiful sweeping views of late, low autumn honey-lit landscapes and at least ten squillion red kites) in order to get to the Oxford Playhouse. What had we gone to see? Well, the choice was either ‘Mother Goose’ (I’m not sitting through a production described as an ‘eggs-travaganza’) or ‘Clytemnestra’. Thankfully, the booking staff were excellent (or should that be ‘egg-celent’?) over the phone and we were sorted with three seats for the Oxford Greek Play.
The Oxford Greek play is performed in...well, Greek. I wish I could say that I had no need for the big, clear subtitle screens on each side of the stage, but alas, my degree was entirely in translation. Even without language skills, I was really looking forward to hearing the tragedy in the original language. There is something particularly musical about ancient Greek which suits the long, rhythmical speeches so beloved of Aeschylus. And this ‘Clytemnestra’, despite the name, was an Aeschylus play – specifically the Choephoroi or Libation Bearers (the second play of the great tragic trilogy of the Oresteia).
So, a quick run-down of the plot – Agamemnon, high king of the Greeks, has been a busy bunny. Not only has he killed his own daughter for a good breeze to get his ships to Troy, he’s also sacked the city (albeit after ten years siege), and has come home, slave girl in tow. His wife, Clytemnestra, however, was not impressed by this behaviour and, with her new beau, set about planning his end. In the first play of the trilogy, she tangled him up in a net of fabric while he was in the bath and set to him with a knife.
So far, so Essex.
And to make matters worse, there are more kids involved. The surviving daughter, Electra, being a girl, hasn't got much sway, but she is not impressed with mummy’s murderous ways. Orestes (the son whose name graces the trilogy) had been exiled for fear he might interfere, but by the time the Libation Bearers kicks off he’s back in town hungry for revenge. The great god Apollo had told him he must do something about the crime (the killing of his father, not his father’s massacre of a nation, the sacrifice of his own daughter or any of that stuff. Priorities, you know?) and by doing what he’s told, he’ll be safe from any sort of come back.
The play, then, is all about Orestes’ revenge, and this comes down to murdering Clytemnestra’s new fella, and, eventually, killing his own mother as well. Obviously, with such a heavy job to do, there’s a lot to talk about. And this is what Aeschylus does so well...
So, on to the play itself. Firstly, I object to the title. Call me fussy, but I love the chorus of mourning women (especially in this cast – not a weak member) and as they not only start off the theme of the play, but also take charge of the narrative and force the outcome (rare in ancient Greek drama) it is appropriate that they influence the title. Clytemnestra is really pretty inconsequential – it’s all about a man’s worth, a man’s revenge, and a man’s eventual justice (albeit with the aid of a female goddess, but that’s another play entirely...)
My other major criticism was the lack of the line “Bring me my MAN KILLING AXE”. There has not been such an amazing line in drama before or since, and anyone who fails to use it also fails to appreciate the full weight of the drama. It is not just a fatal axe. It’s a MAN KILLING AXE!
Aside from that, it was bliss. The actress who played Electra entered the stage with a fractured beauty, her voice suiting the language so well I could have wept. The stage design (a nod to both the Greek and Oriental) worked perfectly, and there were balletic touches (the weaving of a ribbon simulating the pouring of a libation, for example) which complimented and raised the heavy verse.
My pain-killers had worn off by the end of the first half and I was in a pretty bad way. The fresh dose kicked in as the curtains rose for the second half. It was a rather magical moment as the light caught on metal. In one of the best pieces of set design I have ever seen, they had constructed full size Doric columns from multiple lengths of chain suspended between solid capital and base. Sadly, the Star Trek style door of the main building did not work (although I’d now like someone to set Medea in a hotel ala The Shining), but aside from that, the rest of the stage craft, including costume, was great.
Oh, and not to go on about things that were wrong in my opinion, but there was this: I could see something I shouldn’t, and couldn’t something I should. No, it’s not the pills. You see, the ‘silent character’ is important to all the plays of the trilogy. Agamemnon has the ‘silent’ figure of Clytemnestra (sits there for ages before screaming and leaping around) and the Libation Bearers has Pylades. But poor Pylades was only there in name, and as such his one line (which effectively amounts to ‘go on, kill your mum, you know you have to’) becomes an uncomfortable aside. This was a mistake. Instead, plagued by his mothers curse, we see the Furies assaulting him when Orestes clearly tells us ‘you lot can’t see this, but...’. I understand why they’ve done this (you get to meet the Furies in the third play of the trilogy, and they don’t want you to miss out on the ‘pleasure’ when you’re there just to see play number 2), but it somewhat misses the point of what’s so scary about the scene anyway. If, under the influence of my pain-killers, I’d got up and started screaming about the purple spiders eating my arm-pit hair, part of the fear the audience would felt would have come from not seeing something that had so upset me.
Even so, this still remains the best tragedy I have ever seen. Even better than the Hippolytus where Theseus tripped over his cloak when carrying his dead wife. Yeah, I know, I don’t have a great frame of reference, but trust me, this was something special and I enjoyed it very much.
Finally, if I’d been the cast, I’d have set about the audience with an axe (fatal...man-killing...it doesn’t matter which). I’ve never known so many people to laugh inappropriately, and how it didn’t put off the actors I’ll never know. It just makes me respect them all the more.