Two nights of Greek tragedy is not everyone's glass of retsina, and when three plays have been condensed into two, it makes for some long evenings. This theatrical outing is worth the effort though. Katie Mitchell's production of The Oresteia, the only Greek tragic trilogy to survive in its entirety, in a new adaptation by the late poet laureate Ted Hughes, is an enriching experience that takes the audience on an enthralling ride through the darkness at its core to the liberation at its end.
Darkness, by the way, is a most appropriate word. There can rarely have been a play so dingily lit, with only pinpoints of torches and small spotlights available to help discern the actors from the shadows that surround them. It is Hughes' words that really illuminate proceedings. His sparse text serves the action superbly and leaves the audience exhilarated.
The first part, The Home Guard (usually known as Agamemnon ), deals with the return of Agamemnon to Argos following the triumphal sacking of Troy. Unbeknownst to him, his wife, Clytemnestra, is seeking vengeance for his sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, to ensure a safe passage to Troy. With her lover Aegishus, Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon in his bath, along with his servant Cassandra.
The second part, Daughters of Darkness, comprising the other two parts of the original trilogy, follows Agamemnon's exiled son Orestes who, in turn, avenges his father's death by killing his mother and her lover. For his crime, he's pursued by The Furies and put on trial for matricide by the goddess Athena.
What Mitchell does best is to emphasise the almost primeval nature of the story, particularly in the stronger first part. The protagonists are trapped in a destiny not of their choosing. 'This is how fate has arranged our existence,' chants the chorus of old men. Agamemnon's cursed family is doomed to repeat the same mistakes down the generations. In part one, the ghost of Iphigenia watches her father go to his bath, helplessly trying to drag him back. In part two, a white-clad Agamemnon helps his son to point the knife home.
There are some brilliant technological touches: the chorus of old men record the speeches of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon and play them back to demonstrate how we're helpless to replay history and also that what's been done and said can never be erased. At the end of The Home Guard, while the chorus awaits the return of the avenging Orestes, his whispered name is sibilantly repeated on a tape-loop.
As for the cast, Anastasia Hille is a chilling Clytemnestra. Hearing the news of the end of the Trojan War, she bears a stunning resemblance to Mrs Thatcher announcing the end of the Falklands conflict …whilst demonstrating all the hospitality of Lady Macbeth. Paul Hilton is a blunt, honest Yorkshireman of an Orestes; Michael Gould a noble Agamemnon and Lilo Baur does particularly well as both the pitiful Cassandra, foreseeing her own end, and as Orestes' sister Electra, rejoicing in her mother's murder.
Though the technological enhancements - video, sound recordings, a blend of music - make this production of The Oresteia seem very up to date, it's real strength, in the end, is in the timelessness of the tale. The recurrent theme - that blood will have blood and old wrongs must be righted - is an all too modern truth demonstrated over and over in the Balkans, the Middle East, Ireland and anywhere where old grievances are still held.