‘Oresteia’ review: ‘odd and over-ambitious’


Visually, the Chapter House in Durham Cathedral perfectly complements the content of Robert Icke’s adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Upon entering the performance space, I was hopeful that the awe-inspiring setting would not overpower the production. When the production began, however, I quickly realised that any flaws, big or small, paled in comparison to the fact that the echoing acoustics in the Chapter House rendered the actors’ voices virtually inaudible and therefore the plot was extremely difficult to follow.

It is not merely the acoustics which causes the disconnect between actor and audience

It is evident that the actors on stage have a clear idea of the play’s intricate plot and there are moments of potentially outstanding acting, particularly from Jack Palmer (Agamemnon) and Fionna Monk (Klytemnestra), that are dampened by the audience’s lack of involvement. Whilst the space is a major hindrance, it is not merely the acoustics which causes the disconnect between actor and audience – the cast also seem to lack awareness that they have an audience to take on a journey with them. For a play which deals with such heavy subject matters as war, murder, and religion, it feels almost as if there is an in-joke that the audience are not in on. In actual fact, the only mildly humorous moment comes from a half-hearted attempt at audience interaction by Auguste Voulton’s Greek Chorus-like character, who asks the audience to act as a jury during the play’s final court-room scene by silently holding in their minds the verdict of either ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’. For the majority of the play, however, the fourth wall is up, and it is sound proof. Phoenix Theatre Company may as well have performed Robert Icke’s updated Greek tragedy in Aeschylus’ original Greek because, to quote a later tragedian, “it was Greek to me”.

There appear to be many stylised moments within the play which attempt to create atmosphere and tension through noise, such as several characters interrupting and speaking over one another. At times, however, it is difficult to tell whether these moments are stylised or accidental – more could be done to make these moments appear more polished. In the space, these moments turn into nothing more than a cacophony of noise, with the reverberating echoes reaching a pitch that is more annoying than atmospheric. Most notably, the play’s climax turned into a shambles. It seemed as if the tech had never been tested in the space before: The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ played far too loud over the speaker on top of Georgia Onslow’s (Cassandra) monologue (which seemed important to the plot, apparently, though it was entirely inaudible) and ’s (Electra) cries and interjections. This moment went on for far too long, ostensibly building to a murderous climax but instead straying into self-indulgence. One is reminded of a child asking his parent to watch him and then proceeding to perform something which, whilst wholly engrossing to the child, is rather tedious to the on-looking parent.

Yule’s direction fails to take into account some basic rules of stagecraft

Director attempts to create some interesting images, such as Agamemnon and his family sitting around a long table, all facing towards the audience, apart from his brooding son Orestes (Jack Fioozan), who sits with his back to the audience. However, Yule’s direction fails to take into account some basic rules of stagecraft: whilst the dinner table image would work well as a tableau, in a living, breathing scene it is ultimately impractical as it makes Fioozan’s character difficult to connect with and his dialogue even more difficult to understand. This is a recurring issue: often, actors speak large portions of their lines with their backs to the audience. In general, Yule’s direction seems more interested in aesthetics than content: whilst the production is visually interesting, it lacks detailed attention to storytelling and characterisation.

Overall, Robert Icke’s adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia seems a rather odd and over-ambitious choice of play. Phoenix Theatre Company’s production asks for a lot from its audience without giving much back in return. Watching the first performance in a three night run, I felt as if I was witnessing the dress rehearsal. However, it is often said that a problematic dress rehearsal leads to a good opening night, so perhaps there is hope for the rest of the show’s run.

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