Katy Holland’s version of The Oresteia reimagines Aeschylus’ trilogy of Greek tragedies, setting them in 90s New Jersey. No longer is Agamemnon returning home from the Trojan War; instead, Bobby is returning home from a ten-year prison sentence. The mafia tropes work well for a play about family, homecoming, and revenge. And as a Classics student with a love of gangster films, I could not have been more delighted.
The chorus are reimagined as a trio of leopard-print wearing women, who strike the perfect balance between being part of the action (on a level with the other characters) and serving a narrative role (for the benefit of the audience alone). The reworking of the Greek gods is also successful. Characters call on a Christian god, as well as on dead characters, in a way that feels perfectly in keeping with their characterisation; in particular, their devout Catholicism and their belief in the importance of family. This also leads to some clever play with ‘father’ and (heavenly) ‘Father’. I especially enjoyed the lighting of beacons at the start of the play, reworked as the lighting of memorial candles. Athena’s central role in the final play of Aeschylus’ trilogy is also reworked in a successful and enjoyable way – you’ll have to go and watch the play to find out how! Perhaps most impressively, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, which is needed to allow the fleet to sail for Troy, is reimagined as a shoot-out at the daughter’s birthday party, resulting in her death. Thus it is still an important motivating factor in the play, as well as one that can be viewed from two opposing sides, as it also is in the original.
The tragic genre does not translate as successfully. Some parts are evidently played humorously, but others felt as though the audience’s laughter went against directorial intentions. There are some excellent moments of questioning the justice of what happens, both in Michael’s (Orestes) monologues and in the final ‘courtroom’ scene, but overall the play feels like one that does not take itself too seriously. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Omar Abdelnasser’s performance as June was especially comical, and the chorus also consistently drew laughter; largely for their overly dramatic lines and reactions. A fair deal of heightened language – especially from Gloria (Clytemnestra) – contributed to the feeling that this Oresteia is self-aware of the comedy in its more classical ‘tragic’ moments. Kevin Hurlbutt’s performance as Michael is where this felt the least true. His entrance, in particular, struck a nice balance between natural and comic.
The only real fault was to be found in difficulties hearing the lines. The ‘News Reporter’ experienced technical difficulties with her microphone, and aeroplanes flying overhead drowned out some of the actors. The positioning of the chorus in the ‘courtroom’ scene, sitting on the front row and so with their backs to the audience, also made them difficult to hear. This was a shame, but did not by any means make the play impossible to follow – especially since Michael, who is the central character for much of the play, was always audible.
The Oresteia is a delightful production – all the more so, set as it is in the Christ Church Cathedral gardens, if the weather is as good as it was for the first performance. While it may not fully capture the tragedy of Aeschylus’ original, it is an exceptionally clever and imaginative reworking of a classic.