Orestes – September 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Helen Edmunson, from the play by Euripedes

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Company: Shared Experience

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date Friday 15th September 2006

This is an adaptation of the Orestes by Euripides, done by Helen Edmundson. Set in a lavish bedroom, with gold sheets on the bed and pairs of gold shoes hanging on the door, I found it was an interesting production which raised some good questions about the reasons people have for killing each other, without trying to come to any specific resolution to answer them all. I like this type of theatre.

The performances were excellent. Electra (Mairead McKinley) was the powerhouse of the piece. She was the one who had seen their father killed in his bath, but was unable to take revenge until Orestes’ return. She is an odd combination of sanity and obsession, not helped by Helen’s cruel remarks about her (relative) ugliness and lack of children. She conveys all the suffering which can lead to a lust for revenge, together with the intelligence and cunning that comes from waiting a long time to get that revenge. She it is who hits on the idea of killing Helen, to pay back Menelaus for daring to take the throne from her and her brother, the rightful heirs (or matricides, as the mob outside the palace prefer to call them). She has more loose screws than B&Q, yet she’s still saner than her brother, whose final descent into total insanity horrifies even her, although that’s partly because he’s just buggered up their one chance to escape the mob. She is also able to argue convincingly against Tyndareos, their grandfather (yes, it’s another Greek dysfunctional family, folks), who is practically baying for their blood, though in slightly more civil terms than the mob outside. His focus is the law – they have killed their mother (his daughter), so they must die. He’s not so hot on why the law didn’t crack down on Clytemnestra and her lover when they killed Pops, but that’s politicians for you. A lovely performance from Jeffrey Kissoon.

Menelaus (Tim Chipping) is wonderfully portrayed as a weak, indecisive type, who’s nevertheless prepared to take advantage of his niece and nephew’s plight to gain political clout for himself. After depleting the forces of wherever he ruled before the Trojan War, he’s now looking for a new country to rule, and here’s a place that’s just lost its rulers, and about to execute their heirs/killers, and hey, he just happens to be family, so why not offer to step into the breach? Do not allow this man to make you a cup of tea; if you’ve got anything he wants, it’ll be laced with something deadly. Despite this, Menelaus comes across as one of the nicer people to begin with – bit softer, more caring and understanding, willing to help the besieged couple. Not that he’s prepared to carry through with it, and in the end, he loses more than he’d bargained for.

Orestes seems to be under his sister’s thumb in many ways, and yet she looks to him for leadership, strength and love. It’s that odd kind of relationship where it can be difficult at times to tell who’s leading and who’s following. He’s plainly more affected by their killing spree than she is – she’s wanted the revenge all along, but he’s suffering the guilt, and it’s after killing Helen that the guilt drives him to lose it completely. Alex Robertson judged his performance in this role very nicely. There’s an intriguing moment as they are heading down the suicide route, where they kiss and look like they’re tempted to make love. I don’t think this implied any pre-existing sexual relationship between them, although as this is based on Greek drama, I could be completely wrong. I just saw it as a last despairing expression of love between them, especially as Electra had been so hurt by Helen’s complete refutation of her womanhood. Still a virgin, this could be her only chance.

Helen arrives in the palace ahead of Menelaus. She’s brought their baby, who is tended to by a slave woman. Helen, though beautiful, comes across as a real bitch. Admittedly, she’s talking to the pair who killed her sister, so you have to make some allowances, but she’s so full of herself, being part-God as she claims (and there’s a cock-and-swan story, if ever I heard one!), that she’s bound to cause trouble wherever she goes. Still, she reminds us of the massive impact of the Trojan war on this world, equivalent to the First World War in more recent times, where so many died for so little reason. And those deaths are the trigger for all that happens afterwards. There are red figures lurking at the back of the stage – dummies – and for me they mainly represented the many dead on all sides because of one beautiful woman and her fatal choice. It’s a powerful confrontation, Helen and Electra, and Claire Onyemere as Helen more than holds her own. The slave woman, played by Claire Prempeh, has little to do but nurse the baby and shrink into the background, and I would have liked to have heard more from her. She does have a short conversation with Electra later, which demonstrates that, for all her reasons to suffer, she’s much more at peace than any other character in the play.

Both brother and sister rely heavily on an alleged oracular injunction to justify their actions, and it’s here that the play’s main interest lies. Is it OK to kill people because ‘God’ tells you to, or not? This, despite ‘God’ having spent centuries passing on the message that killing is not a good idea. In many languages! Through many wise people! I am firmly in the ‘killing is not a good idea’ camp, and I regard with deep suspicion anyone claiming that ‘God’ has given them a licence to kill. However, it does happen, and we need to come to terms with this particular insanity, which never seems insane to those who find it a handy excuse. It’s noticeable that these young siblings ask for their gods’ help after they’ve decided to kill Helen, not before. I got the impression that Electra was getting a taste for murder by then.

The couple try kidnapping Menelaus’ baby as a way of negotiating an escape, but it all goes horribly wrong when Orestes tries to fly off a cliff. Oops. Not having a handy cliff on stage, the shoe-laden door had to double as a dangerous precipice (from comments at the post-show, this didn’t involve any acting on the door’s part). I found this ending a bit confusing, because there was so much going on. On the cliff, we have Electra, in front of her brother but supposedly looking forward at him. He’s behind her physically, so he can use a rope to brace himself and appear to be flying or falling (take your pick). Menelaus is down below, screaming at everyone because he’s petrified his baby is going to be killed, and Helen’s dead body has somehow rolled itself onto the stage. God knows what Tyndareos and the slave woman are doing – I couldn’t keep track of it all. Orestes has also sprouted some feathers at his shoulders, which were intriguing, but didn’t help with the clarity at this point. Also, the rear semicircle of the stage burst into flames as all this is happening, so we had a few hazards to keep our minds off the action. Normally I like Shared Experience’s multi-layering, but this was a bit too much. I basically focused on Electra and Orestes, and left the rest to their own devices.

There wasn’t much else to report on the staging; the set worked well to convey the place and situation – an opulent prison – and the main focus was simply the performances, all of which were first rate. I would happily see this again.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me