By Louis Train
“Things evolve,” writes Rhys Lawton, director of this youth production of The Oresteia. “The same topics for examination that were needed then [in Ancient Greece] are not needed now, so instead we have to look at the parts of society that haven’t managed to evolve; the treatment of women, the questioning of authority and the fear of the other.”
Lawton promises a play that is both classical and progressive. He delivers on that promise, and then some. Not only is The Oresteia insightful and provocative, it is also an intensely gripping story.
Agamemnon, the great general and leader of Ancient Greece, returns from the Trojan War, victorious, to his wife, Clytemnestra, who doesn’t waste much time before she kills him and takes the throne alongside her lover, Aegisthus. Furious at their mother for her misdeed, brother and sister Orestes and Electra plot, and execute, the murder of both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The text raises questions of gender, justice, and authority, but above all else, it sparks a fascinating conversation on group dynamics.
Call them crowds, mobs, or choruses, groups are present wherever there is change in the world. Just a few years ago, we had real faith in groups; we watched millions of people mobilise to vote for hope and change in America, whilst in the Middle East, crowds gathered to topple dictators. Now, not a decade later, we see violent street protests, popular terror movements, and confused, fractured voting groups doing more harm than good to themselves and others. On top of that, we have come to question who is really in control: if a Facebook user in St. Petersburg can organise a pro-Trump rally and a pro-Clinton rally on the same day, and get thousands of people to turn out to both, is there anything more to these movements than blindly following orders?
That’s where The Oresteia really has something to say. In the Ancient Greek tradition, there are both named characters and a chorus, but the chorus, in this case, play an unusually large part in the story. They both react to the action and participate in it, urging Orestes to kill his mother, and casting a gloomy and bitter shadow over all of Argos. This makes it difficult to imagine even the soundest mind making a noble choice.
Max Hijmering is a stand-out Orestes, confused by the choices in front of him and at the mercy of the wills of others, he is forever torn between bad advice and worse advice. Ellen Blackburn, as Electra (amongst others), plays a game of subtlety, never quite showing her hand. Isabella McDonald and Jude Lancaster, as supporters to the royals, bring humour to the tragedy when it is needed most.
The play ends with a vote: audience members decide whether they think Orestes should be found guilty or innocent, and the majority vote determines the end of the play. This clever theatrical machination serves not only to bring the audience closer to the action, but also to remind us that we are also a kind of group. One wonders if we are any better than the court of Clytemnestra.
The Oresteia runs through 8 December.
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