First, the scoop on The Scoop is that it’s a fantastically atmospheric and stimulating modern outdoor amphitheatre space carved into the shadow of City Hall on the South Bank, near Tower Bridge. With seating on two sides of an oval-shaped stage on bare, steeply raked stone steps (you might want to bring a cushion, if comfort matters to you more than a sense of theatrical urgency), it was first pressed into impromptu dramatic use last summer for a brief three-week season of a production of Oedipus. Now, fringe company The Steam Industry have returned for an even more ambitious six-week season of free open-air theatre, presenting two plays in rep (See News, 30 Jul 2004).
The even more exciting news is that director Phil Willmott launches it this year with a fast, fierce production of another Greek tragedy, Aeschylus’s Agamemnon that fully tests and inhabits this unusual, electrifying space. Willmott himself has said, “It’s a place for big public plays with big public themes”. And while this production gathers together a potentially unruly crowd of curious people passing by the river walkway and a more dedicated one of those who’ve come specially for the play (some complete with picnics), it quickly harnesses them all in its swift, powerful dramatic trajectory.
I was amazed at how concentrated both the playing and the audience’s clear involvement was, imaginatively established early on by having several of the actors actually placed amongst the audience and emerging from it to start the play off. While the venue itself plays its own important part in expressing the excitement and momentum of the drama, it also presents its own unusual demands: speeches could be literally thrown to the wind or unduly exaggerated to compensate. But Willmott’s production is clearly spoken by a mostly youthful, committed cast.
Just as importantly, they also register this bleak, brilliant story in all its haunting glory that picks up where Iphigenia at Aulis, currently to be seen just along the river at the National, leaves off. In that play, Agamemnon strikes a terrible bargain with the gods to sacrifice his own daughter in return for favourable winds that will propel his navy to Troy; now, he returns from the resultant victory to face the music back home, particularly from Clytemnestra, his daughter’s still-bereaved mother.
Willmott has telescoped this action into a short 70-minute running time, for reasons of both comfort and attention spans in such outdoor conditions. While I usually welcome brevity, this play and this production have enough depth to hold us for longer. Only the somewhat rudimentary lighting lets it down.
Both the venue and production add yet more lustre to the ever-increasing theatrical regeneration of the South Bank, where just metres away from here the Unicorn Theatre for Children is also under construction.
- Mark Shenton