Bard Music Festival / Theater

Aeschylus’ Oresteia at Bard, translated by Ted Hughes, directed by Gregory Thompson

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Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by The Oresteia, oil on canvas, 1981
Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by The Oresteia, oil on canvas, 1981

Manibus E. T. V.

The Oresteia by Aeschylus
, Choephoroi, and The Eumenides

A Translation by Ted Hughes
Directed by Gregory Thompson
Set/Costumes by Ellen Cairns

Louise Collins – Electra
David Fielder – Chorus / Servant / Apollo
Beth Fitzgerald – Cassandra / Chorus / Fury
Richard Glaves – Orestes
Derek Hutchinson – Watchman / Aegisthus / Fury
Aoife MacMahon – Chorus / Chorus / Athene
Hilton McRae – Agamemnon / Fury
Rhys Meredith – Herald / Pylades / Fury
Mary Jo Randle – Clytemnestra / Clytemnestra’s Ghost
Sandra Voe – Chorus / Clissa / Priestess (the Pythia)

If I was at all distracted during the three intensely focussed performances at Bard’s Fisher Center, it was to pinch myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. Gregory Thompson’s production of Aeschylus’ Oresteia seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience—a satisfactory production of ancient Greek drama in English. In fact it was more than satisfactory—far ahead of anything else I have seen. In fact if I have to qualify my estimate of its success in any way, it is for purely technical reasons: Mr. Thompson concentrated on the surviving element of of Aeschylus’ work, the text, and ignored dance and music almost entirely. On the other hand he was perfectly right in deciding on this solution. Whatever dance and music one might bring in would be either an insufficiently documented reconstruction or a modern recreation in a modern idiom, and Aeschylus’ verse is sufficiently rich and complex to make it advisable to concentrate on that alone. Every actor delivered Ted Hughes’ lucid, noble, and colorful English with supreme clarity and ease, so that the audience could make close contact with the meaning and beauty of the language, as well as the elegance and expression of the actors’ delivery. The power of this brilliant production lay in its honesty and directness.

Some of you may wonder why I’m making such a fuss of all this, especially those of you who have been thrilled by the Medeas, say, of Diana Rigg or Fiona Shaw. The issue is that Greek tragedy never gained a foothold in the anglophone theatrical tradition, as it did in Germany, where there is a direct theatrical and literary link in Goethe, Hölderlin, et. al., and where the traditional style of acting, which stresses beautiful diction, is more congenial to the tragedians’ reliance on speeches in verse. Or take modern Greece, where the works of the ancient dramatists have proven an effective way of luring tourists into the ruins of their ancient theaters for something longer than the time it takes to snap a few pictures. The only form in which Greek tragedy is relatively at home in the Anglo-Saxon world is as a vehicle for female stars. I’ve seen some excellent performances of this sort, but they have nothing to do with what Euripides or Sophocles had in mind, when they ventured a production at one of Athens’ Dionysian festivals. From the few texts which have survived we can get at least a partial knowledge of the words. If we study the rhythms of the choruses very carefully, we can get at least a preliminary hint of the rhythms of the music and dance. Vase paintings and reliefs can give us a partial view of costume, gesture, and stage design. None of this is really enough to capture the spirit and effect of ancient drama on a modern stage. This comes out most readily at our response to the highly emotional tenor of the diction when translated into English. Is the even hotter emotivity of modern Greek actors, at least the older ones, say Katina Paxinou, any truer a representation? Anglophones are not often responsive to that either. The use of ancient dress on the stage presents yet another distancing factor.

The ancient work of art requires careful and skilful mediation to move a modern American or British audience, and that is what Gregory Thompson and his flawless cast set out to do. Through the choice of translation, the use of modern dress, a panoply of theatrical skills, and above all, the decision to take the trilogy as it is, even its puzzling or unsympathetic details, they have brought the Oresteia into the modern world, set it before us in the theatre, and reciprocally inducted us into its world, immersing us in the power of, for example, beliefs about blood-guilt, hauntings, and spiritual beings—beliefs that were seen as obsolete or even primitive at the time the plays were written. (Curiously Athene’s rational political solution seems more alien to us today.) The audience was able to come face to face with the Oresteia, in such a way that it could be appreciated for what it is, even if certain historical details could not be understood without explanation.

Thompson did not pretend to resurrect Aeschylus’ trilogy in front of us. He concentrated on the English text, its meanings, its sounds, and its rhythms. In doing this he could not help but stress the fact that his actors were performing the resonant translation of a great modern poet. As I listened, I was always conscious of Ted Hughes’ language as a transducer through which I was hearing echoes of Aeschylus’ Greek, as I’m sure Gregory Thompson intended me to be. In all its straightforwardness, the performance was as much a tribute to Hughes as it was to the original creator, and all sorts of wonderful results emerged from it. Hughes deserves special credit for his careful handling of Aeschylus’ powerful similes and their ongoing web of symbolic meaning, and Thompson made sure the actors did full justice to this. He also carefully pointed the recurring narratives of past events, which at first appear in brief, sometimes obscure allusions, later growing into fuller narratives, in which details exercise a powerful effect, for example, the act of murdering Agamemnon, and Clytemnestra’s fateful net. This not only recognizes Aeschylus’ complex architecture, but it conveys the inexorability of the consequences (fate, if you insist…), once an act has been done. Put this in the context of the characters’ often cryptic or evasive language (intended to avoid provoking human or divine anger and the resulting retribution), which conveys a powerful sense of fear and foreboding, and the effect is truly powerful.

The company’s intelligence and attention to detail was clearly the foundation of their success, perhaps, but the broad scope of contemporary theatre provides the conditions in which it can happen. Gregory Thompson and designer Ellen Cairns, who have worked together on several important productions, have been leading figures in British—above all Scottish—theatre for some years. In an environment which can create, for example, Rupert Goold’s Macbeth and Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, there is extraordinary flexibility and skill in combining the theatrical languages which have developed since the Second World War, as well as freedom for the imagination. In this way Cairns and Thompson found a way to incarnate Aeschylus’ dramaturgy in a contemporary form and and to make the contemporary accidentals show the spirit of the original all the more vividly.

At the beginning of Agamemnon and throughout the play, Thompson puts into modern dress a topic which fascinated the ancient Greeks from Homer to Plato and beyond—the inherent fallibility of verbal reports: the word itself, which can be moulded by the speaker ad libitum, is suspect, since human beings are by nature either ignorant or deceptive. This is one of the first themes to emerge in the Odyssey (in Zeus’ first speech in Book I), and Aeschylus, who modestly called his work “scraps from Homer’s banquet,” is well aware of it. The concept is essential to the entire body of myth and legend concerning the returns of the surviving Greeks from the Trojan War, and, after the Odyssey itself, Agamemnon’s return (which is recurrently mentioned as a leitmotiv in the Odyssey) was one of the most renowned of them all. Agamemnon suffered no delays and wanderings like Odysseus or Menelaus. His return was relatively easy, but he returned only to be slaughtered by his vengeful and unfaithful wife, Clytemnestra, as he emerged from his ritual cleansing bath. Aeschylus built this into the basic mechanism of tragedy, the communications between the actors and the chorus, and he gave it a magnificent presence in the mind’s eye through the Watchman’s description of the relay of beacon-fires in the night, in which he also has a lot to say about words and reports, especially obscure and ominous gossip. In Agamemnon the chorus are citizens of Argos; therefore, in interacting with them, the principle characters are conveying public information, whether true or false. Therefore, it is natural enough to make the chorus members of the Fourth Estate. There are only three of them (One for the strophe, one for the antistrophe, and one for the epode, one would like to think, but Hughes doesn’t preserve the tripartite or binary choral structures in his translation, and this was not apparent in the delivery either.), played with intense individuality and color by Aoife MacMahon, Sandra Voe, and David Fielder. Their range of emotions, from anxiety over the safety of the state and people to joy and relief at Agamemnon‘s return, was astonishing. (The Watchman, brilliantly characterized by Derek Hutchinson with a touch of plebeian humor, shared some of these emotions, along with his weariness after years of waiting) In any case, the emotional identification of the chorus with the body politic may seem unjournalistic, but the anachronism was effective and beautifully executed.

The actors, who come from pretty much all over Britain and Ireland, were absolutely consistent in their clear and eloquent delivery of Hughes’ translation, as well as the imagination, color, and power of their characterizations. Most played different roles in each of the three plays, although Mary Jo Randle stayed with her magnificent Clytemnestra throughout, and Louise Collins appeared as Electra only in the Choephoroi, The superb Richard Glaves as Orestes in Choephoroi and The Eumenides. Dundee-born Hilton McRae played a steely, larger-than-life Agamemnon, whose fall is all the more awesome, as he is clearly equal to Clytemnestra’s fierce determination both in will and in intelligence. The beauty of Mary Jo Randle’s Clytemnestra, apart from her glorious throaty contralto (occasionally more like a baritone), was her many-sided treatment of her character’s deceitfulness towards a variety of people: the chorus, Agamemnon, and Orestes above all. (Of course she truly believes that right is on her side.) The encounter of husband and wife was deeply chilling, and I shan’t forget it any time soon. Clytemnestra’s smooth deception, her perversion of the word through her confident flow of lies, is countered by Agamemnon‘s care not to say or do anything to provoke retribution. His sacrifice of his daughter and ten years of war have drained away every drop of common humanity in him, but they have taught him to be both pious and cautious. Beth Fitzgerald played Cassandra in a spectacularly virtuosic but disciplined interpretation, which never lost its focus on the essentials of the role amidst the usual pyrotechnics of a mad scene. If Clytemnestra can lie and make some people believe her, at least for a while, no one has an ear for Cassandra’s prophetic ravings, until she manages to persuade the chorus to believe a part of her message. The rest was too horrifying for them to accept.

During the course of Choephoroi Richard Glaves’ Orestes has to rise to a similar fever pitch. Especially given the youth of his character and of himself, his portrayal could have easily have fallen apart into embarrassing emoting, but he maintained tight control throughout, building up the effect of his speeches most impressively and producing a powerful effect. If Louise Collins’s delivery is less felicitous than the others, it is due to her youth and the youth of her Electra, who is barely more than a child. Derek Hutchinson was a delightfully sleazy Aegisthus, complete with shiny sharkskin suit. He meets his end, drunk, in a disarrayed dressing gown with a glass of whiskey in his hand. (What better companion than the man who is not half a man for the man in a woman’s body?) Finally, in The Eumenides, Aoife McMahon makes a powerful impression physically and vocally as Athene, and David Fielder returns as an exotic, Siddhartha-like, decidedly unwinckelmannian Apollo. No, he was not smoking bhang.

In Thompson and Cairns’ commendable eschewal of distractions (In comparison, Brain Kulick’s production of An Oresteia flaunted an advanced case of dramatic ADD.) visual effects and props were severely kept to a minimum. A radio for the Watchman, a sandwich, a few microphones and office chairs sufficed at first. The action unfolded on a central area, the equivalent of the ancient Greek orchestra, between the two bleachers on which the audience sat. At either end, simple gold frames, inverted trapezoids, suggested buildings: at one end a smaller one atop a tall staircase, through which the Herald (played by Rhys Meredith with both energy and sensitivity), Agamemnon and others arrive (It also serves as a broadcast studio.); at the other, raised by only a few steps, a large frame, closed off by a Plexiglas window, which opens to admit Clytemnestra to the “orchestra.” This is the palace of the Atreidai. When the fatal purple carpet is rolled out, the first real color we see, the effect is both impressive and disturbing. Richly patterned, it is covered with children’s handprints (reminiscent of Richard Long). This is both beautiful and disturbing, for I, at least, imagined them to be the hand-prints of slave children. For Choephoroi, part of the central stage is removed to reveal a sandy area, where the libations to Agamemnon are carried out. In this way the audience can actually see Orestes’ footprints. In The Eumenides, Clytemnestra’s bloody net, rent by stabbing, was laid out as evidence, and, beyond that, for our contemplation.

Choephoroi is the most musical play of the trilogy. The chorus, as the libation bearers of the title, play a major role as participants in the action. The Athenian audience would have enjoyed a spectacle of grave dance and choral singing, but for us it is enough to concentrate on the three chorus members’ exchanges with Orestes and Electra. These bitter and fearful women interact poignantly with brother and sister, steeling their resolve as Orestes’ necessary task approaches. This brief play was surely one of the most intense experiences I have had in the theatre.

Many a classics don will tell you that The Eumenides is a bore, or at least unperformable on our stages today. Not so for Gregory Thompson. The final play of the trilogy was deeply moving in his production, and every moment proved gripping. It becomes a verbal struggle between the Olympian gods, the new gods, and the primeval blood-demons which have pursued murderers from the beginning of time. The play opened with Sandra Voe’s deeply humane portrayal of the Pythia (vaguely called “Priestess” by Hughes). The chorus is now expanded to four loathesome females (played by Derek Hutchinson, Beth Fitzgerald, Hilton McRae, and Rhys Meredith), the embodiment of the material products of killing: gore, putridity, stench, and filth, as well as the spiritual counterparts of vengeance, traditionally the murderer’s payback from a relative of the murdered person. Apollo and Athene must argue their case against the Furies before the Areopagus (in this case the audience). They contend that the age of the Furies is over, and that homicides were to be tried before the appropriate civil body, the Areopagus, an august group of citizens founded by Athens’ patron goddess. The instrument of Athene’s justice is the word, made for the purpose of persuasion, both cutting and pleasant…seductive, really. The Greeks were in fact awed by the power of Persuasion, or Peitho, and her ability to change people’s thoughts. I was deeply moved, as Aoife McMahon’s Athene fought both for a release for the suffering Orestes and for a rational and progressive course for humanity in the future. Her arguments are a mixture of common sense, a trust in human intelligence and decency, and notions peculiar to the arrenocentric Athenian society of the Fifth Century BC. The latter are not easy for moderns to understand and accept. At the end, urns and white and black stones were passed around the front row. I noticed that women intransigently cast the black stone, as well some of the men. Perhaps a bit of fixing was necessary—a fine old Greek tradition—in order to produce the tie required by the play. It is Athene’s prerogative to break it. Orestes goes free. And the Furies agree to a new role, in which they descend into the earth at their cave in the Acropolis, and, now called the Eumenides (the kindly ones) they will exert their primeval power in the cause of justice and civic peace. There are few more desirable things than these essentials of civilization, the results of the use of reason in public life.

As I have mentioned, this performance is honest, straightforward, and free of literal contemporary references, in spite of its modern dress. For a moment I feared that Agamemnon might arrive in a fighter plane with a flight suit on, but  Thompson mercifully spared us anything so obvious. But he did provide an eloquent program essay, in which he does discuss the enormities of the Bush administration. He compares Bush & Co. to the Furies, and Athene to Obama, notably in his Cairo speech. Indeed thinking by God and guts harks back to an older, more primitive way of life, while Obama is showing signs of reviving the heritage Americans owe to the Enlightenment. We don’t need to think of this literally while we are watching the plays, but it is impossible to ignore it. He drew a striking parallel between Athene’s “The time of brute force is past. The day of reasoned persuasion, with its long vision, with its mercy, its forgiveness, has arrived. The word hurled in anger shall be caught in a net of gentle words of quiet strength. The angry mouth shall be given a full hearing. I understand your fury. But the vendetta cannot end, the bloody weapon cannot be set aside till all understand it.“ and Obama’s “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.“ (Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 2009) So, after all, Thompson has, in his own deft way, made the Oresteia relevant.

Once again, Bard Summerscape has created an important and unfogettable event, as well as the best in British theatre. The usual purveyors of imported productions in New York could well envy this distinguished achievement.

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