Aeschylus' The Persians
Translated by Janet Lembke & C. J. Herrington
Directed by Sandra Shotwell
Dramaturg: James T. Svendsen
Classical Greek Theatre Festival Tour 1993, University of Utah
Video presentation of the play that toured September and October, 1993.
Shown at the Comparative Drama Conference, Gainseville, FL, March 1994.
Reviewed by C.W. Marshall
Department of Classics
University of British Columbia
The performance that was filmed was outdoors. The bare concrete tile stage had no skene, but was merely surrounded by lush green vegetation. The Persian court symbolizes human encroachment on nature. There is nothing comfortable in the chorus. The twelve move in military formations (the rank-and-file partly inspired by Theatre du Soleil, as the director admitted in the discussion which followed). Faces were painted in imitation of kabuki masks, but with some features from other cultures, such as Indian red cheek-spots. The group singing and dancing (choreographed by Carolyn Wood) was unashamed and hypnotic, effectively using mock spears as props. Jeffrey Price's music had an oriental flavour, and punctuated the whole play with drums. The chorus makes guttural emoting sounds, twice murmurs Greek phrases as background to long speeches, and once emits a cacophonic shriek: this alone seems out of place.
The actors are comfortable performing outdoors, especially Myk Watford's messenger (he doubled as Darius); they do not hesitate to make their actions big, as is necessary. Willard Knox's Atossa perhaps overused an outstretched hand (palm facing up and down) but made up for it in his singing as Xerxes. The actors occasionally blended in with the chorus, suggesting a lack of differentiation of questionable significance.
The invocation of Darius (a real dance, with some Greek words, and the play's first pipe music) was accomplished by the waving of a long red silk, which had unintentional echoes of Agamemnon, and symbolized 'boldness' and 'blood', according to the director. It was overused (when Darius disappeared, so ought the silk to have), but its benefit to the scene was significant: like a slight-of- hand trick, the silk provided a distraction for Darius' subtle entry centre stage, having crossed from the side in plain view but behind the fluttering symbol. He did not seem ghost-like, but was clearly special.
The song and dance of the play was exotic, and creative. I fear it may have hindered at certain points. While the crossing of the Hellespont was clear, the battle of Salamis was less so, if one did not know what to listen for. Some might say that the production undervalued Aeschylus' words, covering them with spectacle. The spectacle though gave a potency to the performance that was desirable: we were clearly seeing another culture, other from the Greeks and other from us. The message was not lost, and when the chorus filed off, sticks, caps, and other props lay strewn across the stage. Persia was wasted, because of Xerxes' attempt to tame nature. His rashness was clear from the ruins that remained.
The filming of the play deserves some comment, because it is the greatest weakness of the production. The sound was terrible, and much was lost as multiple voices hit distant microphones. I recognize that there are certain limitations at work, but there was no need for most entrances to be edited out (when characters entered, they simply appeared in close up, which pulled back to reveal them standing centre stage; we never saw how the character arrived) which was very frustrating, and probably concealed what had been some nice effects.
C. W. Marshall
C.W. Marshall balances his teaching load with improv comedy.