17 March 2012

The Oresteia at the Riverside

I had not seen an original Greek Tragedy before and the deciding factor in going to see this one was that the translation was by Ted Hughes. It was not so much that I expected to hear echoes of his poetry, rather it was the stamp of authority given to the play by the fact that a former Poet Laureate thought it worth translating.

It helped that it was on at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, which is probably my favourite theatre as it manages to mix the best of the west-end (e.g. big names and good facilities) with the best of the fringe (challenging productions in intimate settings).

Hammersmith also sits nicely between where I live and Central London and that makes it easy to visit either by itself or as part of a larger day out. This time it was the later but spending longer than expected admiring David Hockney meant arriving at the Riverside having had the all-to-familiar evening meal of a pint and a packet of peanuts.

The Oresteia was staged in Studio 3, which is the small studio just inside the entrance on the right. I had been there a few times and I decided to break with established tradition and go for a seat in the third row rather than the front. I take risks like that.

Entering the studio we see the cast already assembles and standing still in the near dark in a simple set.

I was delighted to see so many people trooping in with me. Theatre is still very popular if you get it right.

Once assembled we get an overture as each of the cast recites a line or two that says something about who they are and the role that they will play in the story.

Or rather three stories as these were three separate plays originally, though, to be honest, the join between them was not obvious except I presume that the interval was taken at one of them.

The story is simple and tragic enough. Man kills daughter to summon a wind, man uses that wind to win a major victory and returns a hero, wife is not so understanding and kills him for revenge, son returns from exile and kills mother for revenge then asks forgiveness from the gods which is granted after consultation with the citizens.

It's a good story and that's why the play has lasted two and a half thousand years.

The Hughes verses flow easily enough, so much so that you hardly notice the form, and that's as it should be.

The acting is faultless too and each of the many characters is utterly believable and convincing. There are no stars and, again, that is as it should be in this play.

What makes the play stand out and turns it from the acceptable to the sensational is the staging.

Few props are used which makes them more dramatic when they are used, such as when Agamemnon is given a bath by his wife Clytemnestra using real water in a hole in the stage or when Orestes and Elektra visit their father's grave.

The movement on stage is remarkable. I do not know who came up with the idea of having Apollo slide across the stage on his back but it works. It really works. And for me that is the beauty of this production, it adds strange spices to the mix that manage to enhance the original flavour without detracting from or overpowering it.

Even coming immediately after the Hockney exhibition this stood out as something special. And that's all you need to know.

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