‘The Greek Play’ at Cambridge is like a Norfolk bus. One arrives every three years but when it does, life suddenly accelerates into a different universe. Greek theatre is such a perfect dialexis of epic drama, choral poetry, hybris, hermatia, pity, catharsis and catastrophe that one of the regrets of my life is that I have no Latin and less Greek. Fortunately, knowing the plays back to front and also (as in these Cambridge productions) getting the surtitles means I am free to luxuriate in the percussive and lyrical glory of the Ancient Greek and so the relative lack of spectacle (fifth on Aristotle’s list of tragedy requisites) and of modern – meaning often trivial - psychology in the characters is no loss. The grandiloquence of Aeschylus equals the grandeur of his subject, the murder of Agamemnon on his return from Troy by his wife, the mother of the daughter the great general sacrificed to get a fair wind ten years before. What won’t a man sacrifice in to win a war and what fury is unleashed by a mother’s grief in response, his archetypically named wife Clytemnestra. What a show! It’s like being able to read (and hear and see) Dante in the original. I hoped this production would live up to the billing.
The chorus (of old men who couldn’t go to war) was compelling, their clothes Edwardian black, their movements jerky and their faces blacked across the eyes like some sinister cartoon of Blair. They also looked and sounded rather like Hasidic Jews crossed with Victorian music hall which might have some private resonance for the director if not in any conscious sense for me. It didn’t matter – it worked well as a hybrid of outsiders and oddities. There was also much of the Great War about the Trojan War depicted here, which again works as it stands as the same sort of grim archetype of all war for Western civilisation now as it the Trojan war did for the Greeks then. Clytemnestra, acted by a Hellenic ‘yellow-haired’ (Helen-like, and hell-leashing) woman, was a great mixture of gender signs, the dressy top of what appears to be an evening gown but is in fact a trouser suit capturing her ambivalent thrusting seizure of the Agamemnon-vacated role as man of the house (with her lady’s lady man Aegisthus in his flowery shirt) competing with her profound maternity and intuitive practical femaleness. Yes, this woman has a clitoris and a will (fiercely awoken by her husband’s actions) but she also has a broken heart : the Trojan war and all its peacock posturing is clearly a boy’s game to her compared to the rending reality of the ritual sacrifice of her daughter and her maternal loss. What won’t we sacrifice to make war holy, a crusade/ jihad. Other resonant moments were the entry of Agamemnon from the pit in a Great War trenchcoat but with the overweening and portentous feathered helmet of a classical age and the ravishing look behind given by Cassandra – the look of startled and exotically beautiful, Arab-dark foreign girl – and then her extraordinary scene, much of it harrowingly and beautifully sung, of horrified omen-seeing, her apprehension of her own and Agamemnon’s death by Clytemnestra’s hand, which (following her curse) no-one will believe (though – against all the rules of theatre, the chorus waver and - almost - intervene).
There were some irritating flaws. It was effective to have a shrine, including the child’s yellow dress and child – and never to be bride – photographs, to Iphigenia as a backdrop to Clytemnestra’s furious grief. But even given the remote foreign language, there was no need to have the Chorus enacting the sacrifice onstage on the dress – ridiculously and fetish-istically - when Aeschylus, and all the unities and rules of Greek theatre, convey the horror with such epic grandeur and dignity and pity in the words, images and sounds. (The bringing in of the ashes of the Troy war dead in jars – or the modern equivalent - during the relevant chorus – was by contrast very effective because it was language-led and hauntingly enacted through gesture, movement and chant.) Nor was there any point in having Cassandra onstage in her leotard and knickers for much of the last quarter of the play, both pre- and (splashed with ketchup) post-mortem. Violence is supposed to happen offstage Greek theatre - and to be reported in appalled language in and Aeschylus is more than capable of handling this without assistance from a pantomime aesthetic. To paraphrase Peter Cook, we get enough at that at home – on the telly. And Cassandra was so ravishing and forlorn in the one look she gave behind, it was criminal to throw this impact away, to turn the rending of her prophetess robes into a strip tease. Her tragedy is a hard enough fall without becoming a farce. Also, although the stillness maintained by both Cassandra and Agamemnon on the (farcically angled and pantomime-bloody) death bed was a tribute to the great skill of these two epic actors, was all that effort really worth it? Yes, here were corpses played with utter conviction by real actors for ten minutes and more – but after the first impact (a second) all this effort added nothing to the drama: only, reductively, to the spectacle. Over and over again.
Despite the small flaws of over-literal spectacle noted, this production was well worthy of its genre, author and story: and that is high praise indeed.
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