Aeschylus' Oresteia
Prose version by Peter Stein,
translated into Russian by Boris Shekassiouk
Directed by Peter Stein
In co-production with Kunstfest Weimar,
Edinburgh International Festival,
Rotterdamse Schouwburg,
Maison des Arts et de la Culture Creteil, Le Manege, Maubeuge

25, 27 & 28 August 1994,
Murrayfield Ice Rink,
SCOTLAND Reviewed by Antony G. Keen,
School of Greek, Roman and Semitic Studies,
Queen's University of Belfast,
5 University Square,
BT7 1NN,
Northern Ireland,
United Kingdom

This much-heralded production of the Oresteia came to Edinburgh after performances in Moscow, Maubeuge, and elsewhere in Europe. It was widely seen as one of the highlights of the official festival's programme. After the wide acclaim given to Stein's production of Julius Caesar in the 1993 Festival, there were hopes, in this reviewer at least, of something to match the remarkable Romanian production of three ancient plays from 1992. Moreover, the mention of 'English supertitles' was intriguing. In the end these proved to be less intrusive than one might have feared, being displays on either side of the stage area putting up selected (though sometimes misspelled) lines from Hugh Lloyd-Jones' translation.

The hopes for grand drama are partially fulfilled, at least in Agamemnon and Choephoroe. A dark brooding menace hangs through both plays, a combination of lighting, darks sets, and the use of mainly dark costumes. Only some of the characters, such as Agamemnon and Orestes, wear white, and when they do this symbol of their status is accentuated by bright spotlights. Aegisthus, it may be noted, does not wear white, underlining the knowledge that he is not worthy of the position he has usurped from Agamemnon. The sense of a repetitive cycle of vengeance is rightly picked up; at the end of each play Clytemnestra and Orestes appear over the bodies of their victims, blood pouring onto the floor, in virtually identical poses.

Effective choruses are always the hardest part of any production of a Greek play, and Stein should be congratulated for his handling of those in Agamemnon and Choephoroe. The Argive Elders in Agamemnon are particularly memorable. Perhaps the element of the production with the most resonances of eastern Europe, they are dressed in Kafkaesque turn-of-the-century suits, enveloped in long overcoats, lit from directly above, their faces shadowed by the brims of their hats. They are old and weary, and powerless to take action to prevent Clytemnestra's revenge. The Chorus in Choephoroe, befitting its more active role, whirls around Agamemnon's tomb, occasionally breaking away to a conspiratorial huddle. Most intriguingly of all, Stein has managed to present both Choruses so that they appear as individuals; though they clearly share common opinions, each member has his own point of view. Occasionally members of the Chorus leave to play other roles in the production, but this is so smoothly done that one does not notice them leave, only that the Chorus is a member short.

The principals are also mostly impressive. Anatoli Vassiliev gives Agamemnon's relatively brief role in the proceedings considerable dignity, whilst Serguei Sazontiev as Aegisthus is, rightly, efficient, competent, but not the man he clearly wishes to be. Though Evgeni Mironov as Orestes and particularly Tatiana Doguileva are a little disappointing, two other principals are marvellous.

As Cassandra, Natalia Kotchetova displays immense self-control. Draped in a sheet when Agamemnon's cart enters, it is not until she emits a cry of woe that we realize that there is a human being under there (Stein omits the scene where Clytemnestra attempts to communicate with Cassandra). With the terror that she expresses as she sees her fate and then the dignity with which, dressed in virginal white, she goes to meet it, she wins the audience's sympathy; for that is, of course Cassandra's role. Agamemnon has Iphigenaia's blood on his hands, so his murder is in one way justifiable; the innocent Cassandra, however, has done nothing to deserve her fate, and it is her death that condemns Clytemnestra in our eyes.

Even better than Kotchetova is Ekaterina Vassilieva as Clytemnestra. It is she around whom the first two plays revolve, and Vassilieva is more than adequate to the challenge. Her finest moments are when she defies the pathetic anger of the Chorus over the body of Agamemnon, a terrifying fury (far more so than the actual Furies will prove to be) virtually spitting blood, and when in Choephoroe she manages with a single glance to convey not only that she does not believe that Orestes is dead, but that she believes the silent Pylades to be her son -- yet despite believing Orestes is in her presence and knowing what he is bound to do, she still invites the men inside, thereby inviting her own destruction (and making Clytemnestra far more sympathetic in the Choephoroe than she is in the Agamemnon).

And then in the Eumenides it all goes horribly wrong.

The line in the programme, 'Fear turned into sadness, shock turned into laughter' should perhaps have warned me, but this reviewer was not prepared for the full enormity of Stein's approach to the end of the trilogy. At first I thought that the titters around me at the whoops and howls of the Furies were simply because Stein had accidentally overstepped the line into self-parody in trying to give the avenging spirits the divine terror that is supposed to be their aspect; but it soon became obvious that Stein was deliberately playing the Eumenides for laughs. Athena flies into the auditorium on a wire, hair perfectly bouffant, looking like something out of a game-show; Apollo is lowered into the trial from the roof, and proceeds to prance about the stage as if in a pantomime.

The Eumenides is not a funny play. It is a deadly serious examination of the debate between two standards of justice, one based on equity and one on revenge, a debate as relevant today as it was two- and-a-half thousand years ago. Apollo and Athena are not figures of fun. Athena, as an audience in 458 would know instinctively, is Zeus' favourite daughter, and arguably his most powerful child. When she appeases the Furies it is not because she has to --any conflict would be long and bloody but there could be only one ultimate winner and that would be Athena -- but because she prefers to. She is not a Hollywood soap queen. Elena Maiorova does her best to convey the power that lies behind Athena's words, but she is defeated by her costume and lighting.

At the very end, Stein almost redeems himself through pure theatre; when the Furies are deprived of their prey their cry of anger literally splits apart the platform on which the jury sit, and when they are finally reconciled, they are garlanded and robed by the people of Athens so that they are completely enclosed -- the compromise is no compromise at all, but a means by which the Furies have been tricked into powerlessness. This is almost enough to make one forget Apollo and his tuneless lyre; but not quite.

I should express that I hold a minority opinion here. The rest of the audience seemed appreciative of the humorous approach, and critics praised Stein's use of levity; but I cannot help feeling that it is wrong, that it undercuts the tone of the whole trilogy; that the levity is not so much boldness on Stein's part as an inability to handle divine characters with the same weight as those who are human. One wonders whether the same people who so enjoyed this production would be as appreciative if Stein turned the last act of Hamlet into a custard-pie fight.

Antony G. Keen

(Antony Keen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ancient Greek History at the Queen's University of Belfast.)