A One-Man Oresteia

Aeschylus' The Oresteia
Translated into Hebrew by Aharon Shabtai
Acted and directed by Doron Tavori
Travelling one-man show
Israel 1994

Reviewed by Hanna Scolnicov
Theatre Arts Department
Tel-Aviv University
PO Box 39040
Tel-Aviv 69978

The Israeli actor Doron Tavori is currently running a one-man show of Aeschylus' Oresteia, in which he performs all the parts, including that of the chorus. His memory never falters. The performance takes about three hours, with two short breaks between the plays. No scenery or props are used, and there are no lighting effects. Wearing jeans and sneakers, the actor undoes the knot that gathers his long, curly hair, which, like every other part of his body, serves the different characterizations. For one breathless moment the hair itself becomes the focus of attention, when Electra matches the lock of hair left as an offering on Agamemnon's tomb with her own, and concludes that it must belong to Orestes. Devoid of any mannerism, artificiality or distance, Tavori begins with a few moments of quiet introspection before he launches into the Watchman's prologue.

If, previously, the convention of three actors plus chorus seemed restrictive, Tavori's self-imposed minimalism now makes it look by comparison rather luxurious and over-indulgent. The change of speakers is accomplished wholly by histrionic means, through changes in body position, mimicry and voice. Tavori oscilates between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra, Athene and the Eumenides, without leaving the armchair in which he is seated. Although he does not move from his chair, his body is anything but motionless. His acting is dynamic and energetic, demonstrating the infinite variety of body expressions that can be achieved around one central axis, or even one static point. This on top of infinite vocal modulations and an impeccable rhetorical power that points every speech, sentence and word, lighting equally even the most hidden corners of the familiar text.

The tremendous power of the performance lies in its concentration. The fearful agon is fought out by Doron Tavori single handed. The attention of the audience is totally focused on the one actor bringing out of himself the variety of personae, creating the dramatic conflicts without the aid of another, putting forth as forcefully as possible the argument of both protagonist and antagonist, both the avenger/matricide Orestes and the murderess/victim Clytemnestra.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this solo performance is the development of the character of Clytemnestra from one part of the trilogy to the next. Metamorphosed in front of our eyes into the deceitful female, about to murder Agamemnon, Tavori highlights, one by one, all the different sides of her character that he can find in the text - the 'feminine' aspects of the abandoned woman, deceived wife, bereaved mother, and wily mistress, and the 'masculine' aspects of the woman capable of ruling Argos and giving orders to men, and the woman who can craftily lair and murder the great victor of Troy. In The Choephori, her portrayal moves from that of the hypocrite, secretly rejoicing in the reported death of her son, through the brief moment of her old belligerent self calling for an axe (with which she appears on vase paintings), to that of the terrified victim, invoking filial bonds in a last futile attempt to save her own life, and threatening Orestes with 'the hounding Furies of a mother's curse'. Her final appearance in The Eumenides as a ghost goading the Furies is a fulfillment of that last promise. But by now she is no more than another memory, another figure from the archaic past with its revenge code, which is to be laid to rest through the wise intervention of Athene and the creation of the court of Areopagus.

This is a performance that accentuates the relationship between the three parts of the trilogy. After Tavori's tour de force, performing Agamemnon on its own seems an incomplete esthetic experience, despite the play's clear unity. The murder committed in the first part is both revenged and echoed in the second part. The two plays both share the same pattern and are causally linked, as are the two faces of the famous calyx-krater by the Dokimasia Painter, depicting the analogous scenes of the murders of Agamemnon and Aegisthus, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. While deepening our emotional involvement, the close ties between the first two plays leave us wondering how the cycle of revenges may be escaped. The third part thus provides a fitting resolution by establishing a civic legal process and brings the issues dealt with in the plays up to date, relating them to the present of the Athenian audience.

Tavori succeeded in turning the victory of the new, rational litigation over the old theological justice into a source of intense satisfaction for his audience, making people smile and even laugh with pleasure. Having been rocked for three hours between conflicting high emotions, the peaceful resolution was soothing and redemptive - a true catharsis.

The Hebrew translation used was the recent one by Aharon Shabtai, who is in the process of translating the Greek tragedies one by one. The performance demonstrated the rhetorical power and beauty of the translation. The style was high, yet not distant, and modern, but with enough archaic tinges to remind the listener of the cultural difference.

Paradoxically, although shorn of all the appurtenances of theatre, this was the essence of theatre. Of the six parts of tragedy enumerated by Aristotle, this performance lacked the last, spectacle, which, Aristotle thought, 'depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet' (Butcher's translation). However, if we distinguish between opsis as stage effects and opsis as what we see the actor doing, then the sixth element was presented in a highly accomplished manner. In fact, one was tempted to think of this production as going back to the origins of Greek theatre in the art of the rhapsode, the single actor declaiming an epic. Like Plato's Ion, Tavori constantly looked his spectators' in the eye, leading them in and out of whirls of emotion.

If every new production of the Oresteia is a happy occasion, this one is a true cause for celebration. Too often the weight of the classical commitment seems to stifle creativity, but Tavori's self-directed production, modest and unpretentious, proves, yet again, the dramatic, rhetorical, and imaginative potential of the ancient trilogy and its eternal topicality. This is a courageous experimental production, a virtuoso piece for one actor.

Hanna Scolnicov

For a review of a very different production of the Oresteia, click here.