The Oresteia: Like Hamlet, But Without All The Waiting Around
When Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods for victory in the Trojan War, his wife Clytemnestra is understandably unhappy. Aeschylus’s trilogy, adapted by Rory Mullarkey and brought to the Globe stage by Adele Thomas, chronicles the ensuing rounds of familial revenge. The Oresteia is so uniformly concerned with ‘justice’ that its sections have every chance of seeming unilateral on stage. But Thomas treats us to an assiette of three very different ‘just deserts’.
First on the menu is Agamemnon: Clytemnestra (Katy Stephens) tries to avenge Iphigenia’s death by stabbing Agamemnon (George Irving) in the bath. It’s caustically cartoonish: there’s no dignity to such an enthusiastic application of fake blood and Stephens is drolly reminiscent of a home-shopping channel presenter as she proffers prosthetics and demonstrates the net used for the murders.
In Choephoroi, Orestes (Joel MacCormack) returns, teaming up with Electra (Rosie Hilal) to kill their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The siblings have frenzied chemistry and the pacing of this second act is faultless: it’s like Hamlet, but without all the waiting around. The evolution of Laura Rushton’s costume design is striking and thoughtful: Stephens returns to be murdered looking gorgeous in a scaled-down version of the bold Escher-style pattern she wore as murderer.
The brilliantly self-deprecating chorus keep any sense of dullness at arm’s length by lampooning the Oresteia’s potential to be monotonous. They come into their own in Eumenides with their stooge-like characterisation of the vengeful Furies, breaking into sickly grins when recast as the Kindly Ones and given new dresses. However, perhaps Humour is used slightly heavy-handedly at the play closes, drawing our focus away from the archaic, alien and reprehensible misogyny that underpins its resolution. The trilogy’s inherent patriarchy is pantomimed as the cast form a parade, throwing confetti at a winged, golden phallus.
Penile pageantry aside, there are some moments of disturbing topicality. In Agamemnon, when Aegisthus (Trevor Fox) seizes Greece, he is flanked by helmeted henchmen with truncheons, who face the audience and chorus as though ready to kettle them. The chorus’ contemporary dress at this moment is particularly resonant: they meld with the groundlings as though they could all alternatively be protesting unheeded against ruthless immigration policies or increased tuition fees. Thomas’s Oresteia is important, timely and unexpectedly palatable.
By Rosalind Stone
The Oresteia is at Shakespeare's Globe, Bankside, until 16 October. Tickets £5-£27. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 05 September 2015