Aeschylus' Persae

May 28-31, 1997
1997 DRAM 301 Company
Director Phillip Mann

Aeschylus' Septem

May 28 - June 8, 1996
Stagecraft Theatre
Director Brian Turner

Reviewed by John Davidson
Department of Classics
Victoria University of Wellington

Of the three Greek tragedians, Aeschylus is possibly the hardest nut for a modern director to crack, and is comparatively rarely attempted. It is therefore exciting to find that in Wellington at the moment it seems to be Aeschylus who has become the flag bearer for Greek Tragedy. Last year we saw Septem. This year it has been the turn of Persae, with Agamemnon also expected shortly. How, then, have Persae and Septem been packaged for a contemporary New Zealand audience?

Persae was presented under the rubric of They shall not grow old by senior drama students at Victoria University of Wellington, 'under the watchful eye' of Phillip Mann. The venue was Studio 77, an extensive and well-resourced theatre space which allowed, among other things, ample room for a full-sized chorus.

The chorus, in fact, represented a departure from Aeschylus in that the male elders had been replaced by Persian women. This change, however, was most effective, allowing an in-depth exploration of the loss of fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, spotlighted in any case in the Aeschylean text. Evocative music (accompanied for the most part by the strings from a dismantled piano) allied with vibrant choreography ensured a powerful emotional impact. The interaction between the chorus and Atossa (a stunning performance) was well worked.

The text (a creative reworking by Phillip Mann) followed that of Aeschylus fairly closely, but was somewhat compressed. As a result, significant details were sometimes left out, for example the point that it was the very flower of Persian nobility who were slaughtered at Psyttaleia. However, the Aeschylean thrust was in general well-captured by what can only be described as a vigorous and colourful English version.

There was one major feature of adaptation, this being the insertion of a parallel 'narrative' relating the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of the First World War and the fate of the ANZAC contingent. Thus, interspersed in the parodos with the names of places like Ecbatana and Sousa, and of Persian warriors like Artembares and Masistes, were the names of towns and cities in New Zealand, and representative surnames (both Maori and Pakeha) of departed New Zealand soldiers.

This feature continued in the messenger speeches and choral responses, with the range of names being even further broadened at one climactic moment to include many ethnic groups and countries. The messenger's descriptions too were punctuated by reports of the Gallipoli campaign and comments on it, delivered at different times by a radio voice, and a 'lecturer' who, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, spoke directly to the audience. The lecturer's brisk and objective approach was strongly contrasted with the halting and emotional tones of the messenger as he addressed the chorus and Atossa.

Mimed sequences (performed on a large trolley which was swiftly wheeled on and off stage at appropriate moments) included bridal preparations cut short by the arrival of a telegram and the grieving song of a widow to her fatherless baby. The Darius figure wore formal evening dress with military decorations, his thoughts wandering between ancient Persian and Gallipoli contexts. At one point too, the ritual lament of the chorus turned most effectively into a formal Maori song and chant of farewell.

All this might sound rather contrived and far-fetched. In fact it worked brilliantly, the two contexts merging into each other with deceptive subtlety and offering a chilling reminder of the tragedy of any war.

Full use was made of the studio's resources. The ghost-raising scene, in particular, was a masterpiece of theatrical sleight of hand. Strobe lighting cutting through darkness created a suitable atmosphere for the choral incantation. Then a large, dark curtain began to billow out and was slowly lowered down to the floor. It was then slowly raised, billowing throughout, to be finally drawn up quickly to reveal the Darius figure, who had presumably come up through a previously unnoticed trapdoor and gradually risen to his full height while concealed beneath the billowing curtain. He seemed to have been constructed out of thin air. Less spectacular, but extremely effective, was the appearance of Xerxes on the gallery at one point during the messenger's speech. The actor had been standing in position all along and was revealed when a small screen in front of him was abruptly withdrawn. This 'vision' of the King, dressed in his royal finery and issuing commands in person, strengthened the effect of his appearance in rags at the end of the play.

As both a spectacle and a disturbing reminder of the misery of war this performance held its audience enthralled. Phillip Mann has been promoting Greek drama with great success for many years (I think right back to the early 1970s, for example, and his Bacchae, with Sam Neill as Pentheus). He is to be unreservedly congratulated.

Somewhat less successful, but still interesting, was last year's Stagecraft production under the title Seven Attack Thebes, which used a translation prepared by Kenneth Quinn and Brian Turner (the director), assisted by Don McKay. An entirely different solution was sought for the problem of how to make Aeschylus accessible to a modern audience. This took the form of a staged lecture on the mythical background followed by a conversation between Oedipus and Antigone on the family history, both written by the director, which preceded the play itself. A straightforward delivery of the essential features of the story would probably have been more useful.

The first problem for the play was the cramped theatre space, necessitating a small choral group of six. Despite some well-conceived choreography and music (by Theano Daskarolis), the chorus were quite unequal to the task of putting across the emotional force of their role. Some rather feeble individual contributions did little to help.

Much more convincing were the performances of Eteocles and the messenger, so that the excitement and impending doom of the situation were successfully conveyed. A most effective ploy was the pageant of the Theban champions, introduced one by one, with splendid devices on their shields, to match the devices on the Argive shields, as described by the messenger. The lament at the end of the play was handled with a simple dignity, and the uninitiated were thankfully not introduced to the burial controversy.

Stagecraft's resources are limited, and the quality of the acting was variable. Despite this, there were glimpses of the raw power of Aeschylus and a reminder of the sheer theatricality of a seemingly static play such as the Septem. We eagerly await the Downstage production of Agamemnon later this year.

John Davidson
Victoria University of Wellington

(John F. Davidson is Chairperson of the Department of Classics, Victoria University of Wellington.)