Writer: Zinnie Harris
Director: Dominic Hill
Reviewer: R G Balgray
Plays seem to come in threes this year (no jokes about Glasgow buses, please). Hot on the heels of the James Plays comes the Citizens and the National Theatre of Scotland’s modern production ofThe Oresteia. The doomed house of Atreus is reimagined by Zinnie Harris as This Restless House – the twist being that the trilogy by Aeschylus (the only one surviving in its entirety from antiquity) is packaged in two parts: part one being Agamemnon’s Return, with the shorter parts two and three (The Bough Breaks and Electra and her Shadow) being run together in a single evening performance with a short interval. So far, so background. However, let’s forget the numbers; for there is much to admire – in the older sense of “to wonder at”, in this production.
Like some grotesque classical soap opera, the house of Atreus is cursed through its generations by bloody murder and betrayal. Zinnie Harris seeks to shed new light on the gory tale by focussing on the female characters and their motivations. Chief among these is Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife. Seen as the almost iconic representation of the adulterous, treacherous wife, in this take, Zinnie Harris seeks to explore what led her to it. So the key factor is Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia, seemingly required by the gods before the Greek fleet can sail in pursuit of Helen. Her bloodied ghost pursues her mother, and latterly her siblings, as the plays roll on through guilt and retribution.
In her performance as Clytemnestra, Pauline Knowles shows her pain as the mother of a slaughtered child; and she is impressive indeed in the second play of the trilogy, obsessively smelling her physical corruption as a mirror of her moral depravity, hearing flies buzzing around her at every turn (full marks to the use of discord in the sound effects representing this). However, it is George Anton, slipping and sliding in his blood as Agamemnon, who is the visceral centre of the action in the hugely-powerful first play. After that, mute, quizzical and lugubrious, then moving through ironic to the grim observer of the inevitable retribution, he still draws the eye, even when the older Electra (powerfully played by Olivia Morgan) takes on the role latterly of avenging her father’s murder.
As it becomes clear that the attention on the women lends this production much depth, even moral ambiguity (balancing Agamemnon’s hypocrisy against his wife’s sympathetic treatment), the central message rings through that tragedy, whoever is truly responsible, repeats itself. Setting the final play in a discreditable mental hospital cleverly emphasises this. What this finale further achieves is to show just how important music and sound is to the success of the production. The gods – represented by sudden bangs and crashes, discordant strings and hostile percussion, but otherwise physically absent – have become those professionals who sometimes dabble in our lives (but are themselves pursued by their Fates, questioning whispers, babble and white noise). They are those who now control revenge and punishment. To the Chorus, a post-Becket trio of “the ordinary, unimportant, forgotten” lent conviction by George Costigan, excellent throughout, in such a world there can be no expiation or redemption, the jury is still out, awaiting further guidance. Just as Aeschylus himself perceived.
Runs until Saturday 14 May 2016