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The Oresteia (HOME, Manchester)

Blanche McIntyre brings a stripped back version of Aeschylus' masterful trilogy to Manchester

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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What's the collective noun for Oresteia? (Actually, while we're at it, what's the plural? Surely not Oresteiae?) Here's a suggestion: a bloodbath of Oresteias. In which case, Blanche McIntyre's poised, pared-back staging pulls the plug on a remarkable run for Aeschylus's epic trilogy.

This is the third time in six months that the House of Atreus has pulled itself apart: father killing daughter, wife killing husband, son killing mother. At the Almeida, it was personal - a family tragedy. The Globe's was political, gunning for the patriarchy and its war over women. McIntyre's, in Manchester, is poetic.

It uses Ted Hughes' compressed version, one of three plays the Yorkshireman finished in his final year alive; the text Katie Mitchell used at the National 15 years ago. Unlike the gruff colloquialism of Tony Harrison's iconic version, Hughes' is succinct and selective. Every image is choice, not a word goes to waste. "Troy raped our women," booms the returned Agamemnon. "Troy no longer exists."

As a text, it's almost sculptural - and McIntyre's staging follows suit. She gives us a string of sharp stage pictures. A watchman is winched up on a swing. A war hero holds out a foot, waiting for someone to remove his boot. An open grave, freshly dug, awaiting a corpse.

Yet, all this is so static, so statuesque, that the staging feels more like a recitation, than drama. Actors take shapes and speak over the top - beautifully, lyrically, clearly, but nonetheless disconnectedly. The effect is strange - stark and contemporary, but also declamatory and dated. Visually interesting, dramatically inert. Peter Hall meets Pina Bausch.

It has the latter's tangibility. Laura Hopkins covers the stage with glistening grey gravel, which, scraped back, reveals the red carpet like a fresh scab. Or is it, perhaps, a rivulet of lava? Ash falls from the sky. Everything glows red, as at the lip of some volcanic crater. Behind, a fine curtain of metal chains hangs like a waterfall, rippling with every touch.

The stillness is deliberate. McIntyre, a Classics grad, sticks to ancient forms, somewhat to the detriment of modern theatricality. Five actors double up - Simon Trinder removes his blazer to swap Aegisthus for Orestes, stepfather for resentful stepson - and, bloodstains excepted, the violence stays offstage. The gods walk among us like sci-fi actors, their whites Daz-clean. It never quite erupts - even Lyndsey Marshal's Clytemnestra only flickers - and McIntyre never unleashes the play's power, never quite taps into its core.

Yet this is landmark in one respect: it proves just what a community chorus can do. More than 50 locals make three choruses - putting "the righteous voice of the public" onstage, blurry, cacophonous and plural. But they also play the Furies, brilliantly: writhing and juddering and scuttling like spiders. These ordinary people become sexless shades, their faces obscured by thick black wigs, and when they do, this Oresteia finally comes to life.

The Oresteia runs at Home in Manchester until November 14.

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