Oresteia: Opening night review

Ramin Sabi’s adaptation of Oresteia is an intriguingly self-conscious depiction of Aeschylus’ ancient trilogy, and is well worth watching. The play pays homage to classical Greek theatre even as it distorts the genre, revealing the artifice of play construction as the narrative progresses. There is a curious, fluid relationship between the narrating chorus and the actors within the storyline, as the chorus serves to mock the audience, the actors, and the genre itself.

The blatant meta-textual discussion of the play by the chorus members repeatedly serves to explain its occasional incongruities. For example, the sacrificed Iphigenia, still with blood on her throat, becomes Clytemnestra’s maidservant-hairdresser without leaving the stage: reverting back to her role as chorus member, she complains to the chorus leader about this double character allocation. For the most part, the self-conscious chorus successfully legitimises discrepancies between Aeschylus’ play and Ramin Sabi’s adaptation of it.

The play has weaker moments: Act II is inappropriately funny considering its content. Ripples of audience laughter stole what could have been more poignant about Orestes’ incredulity at the prospect of murdering his mother. Orestes’ initial dialogue with Electra was so clichéd that even the complaints made by the chorus could not make their conversation more funny than it was cringe-worthy. Classicists and devotees of Aeschylus’ Oresteia will baulk at the on-stage deaths, the presence of Artemis as prosecutor at Orestes’ trial, and the bouts of hilarity which had the play leaning precariously into the genre of comedy.

The play is carried through by some thoroughly commendable acting. Abi Rees was powerful, striking and tragic as Clytemnestra, her anger palpable, and her grief raw. Isabella Wilson revealed remarkable versatility, hurtling through some beautifully distinct characterisations as a chorus member, prophetess Cassandra, Orestes’ grief-stricken nurse, and one of four ethereal Furies. Between them, Alex Lau (Apollo) and Olivia Barber (Athena) epitomise the gods of classical mythology: he is whimsical, bejewelled, perennially bored and indolent to the point of really being quite camp, and she is regal, haughty, and supercilious as she revels in her power to pass judgement on mere mortals.

The set is imaginative and well-executed, as Apollo lords it from on high, curtains are torn down, and blocks variously depict a sacrificial altar, a botched tomb, and a courtroom. The play draws together into a third act which is concise, focused, aesthetically pleasing and convincingly acted. Admittedly, die-hard classicists will find certain moments less palatable than viewers who have not studied Oresteia. Ultimately, however, Ramin Sabi’s adaptation is an arresting and compelling engagement with Aeschylus’ trilogy.

–Sarah Gashi