First published in The Times, Thursday May 5 2016
There’s a wealth of Greek literature in Scottish theatre at present. The blood is still wet on the stage at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum (during the current run of Chris Hannan’s adaptation of Homer’s Iliad), as the curtain begins to rise on this ambitious reimagining of Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, with a punchy, contemporary version of the text by the playwright Zinnie Harris.
The setting for Harris’s update lies somewhere between the 1970s and the present day, with flock wallpaper visible beneath industrial tiling and strip lights dangling from a ruined ceiling. Yet, the devices of Greek theatre are all present in some form in Dominic Hill’s two-part production, from the earthy prologue delivered by a chorus of the dispossessed (“If you want a laugh you go to the Pavilion”) to the deus ex machina that arrives in the unlikely figure of a girl with platted hair and a suitcase of toys at the end of the final play.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
Nonetheless, Hill has fun subverting our expectations of Greek tragedy, notably the custom for scenes of violence to take place offstage. In the opening play, Agamemnon’s Return, a witness has just finished relaying the murder of the title character (George Anton) by Clytemnestra (Pauline Knowles) in vengeance for the sacrifice of their daughter, when the protagonists burst onto the stage, a nude Anton sliding around helplessly in his own blood, stalked by a frighteningly lucid, knife-wielding Knowles.
Harris makes a more emphatic departure in the second and third parts of the trilogy. In The Bough Breaks, the focus switches to Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s daughter, Electra (a disarming performance from Olivia Morgan), who replaces Orestes (Lorn MacDonald) as the instrument of her father’s vengeance. In the final play, Electra and Her Shadow, a haunted Electra, now in an asylum, imparts her fears to a psychiatrist (Anita Vettesse). This new perspective on spirals of emotional damage in families makes the implication of a contagious madness in Harris’s script all the more chilling.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
As is familiar from Hill’s previous main stage productions, Nikola Kodjabashia’s live soundscape of crashing timpani and plucked piano strings underscore the heightened dialogue without inhibiting the fluency of the action. While the leads, notably Knowles as the boozed-up queen reanimated by her despised husband’s return, impress over the course of a marathon four-hour performance, the presence of the fine 11-strong ensemble on stage throughout is a constant reminder of the debilitating ravages of a wider society afflicted by seemingly relentless cycles of violence.
Box office: 0141 429 0022, to May 14. Citz.co.uk