A Winter’s Oresteia

Mar 4 2015 | By More

★★★☆☆    Bloody tragic

Summerhall. Tue 3 – Fri 6 March 2015
Review by Thom Dibdin

There’s more bloodletting and familial back stabbing than a whole decade of Eastenders in James Beagon’s crafty updating of the tale of the end of the Trojan wars for Aulos Productions.

This is the story of Clytemnestra, whose husband Agamemnon had led the Greek army off to Troy to avenge his brother Menelaus, whose own wife was Clytemnestra’s sister Helen – the one who had been “captured” by the Trojans and whose face is said to have launched a thousand ships.

Finlay McAfee (Agamemnon), Alice Markey (Cassandra). Photo Aulos Productions

Finlay McAfee (Agamemnon), Alice Markey (Cassandra). Photo Aulos Productions

Agamemnon’s return to Clytemnestra after a decade battling away at the walls of Troy in defence of his cuckolded brother is hardly a happy one.

In order to secure safe passage to Troy he had sacrificed their eldest daughter. He returned with a mistress: Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy. And Clytemnestra had had her own entanglement in Agamemnon’s absence: to his cousin, Aegisthus.

In terms of adaptation, Beagon has scored a pretty direct hit, bringing the original trilogy of plays into a contemporary setting but retaining their themes of bloody retribution.

His masterstroke is to bring Iphigenia, the sacrificed daughter, right to the front of the action. She appears as a ghostly apparition, seen only by Clytemnestra. Iphigenia brings with her a chorus of Furies, wraithlike beings from the netherworld.

All of which is very well played out in the early scenes, thanks to a pair of superb performances from Sally Pitts as Iphigenia and Danielle Farrow as Clytemnestra.

kleptomaniac tendencies

Pitts brings the necessary eerie quality to the production, while Farrow has the ability to keep the narrative clear while her character is suffering from delusions. Not an easy task, when Clytemnestra is at home with her three teenage children, Orestes (for whom the play is named), Chrysothemis and Electra, all of whom blame her for the break-up with their dad and would rather be spending time with him.

Sally Pitts (Iphigenia) and Danielle Farrow (Clytemnestra) Photo Aulos Productions

Sally Pitts (Iphigenia) and Danielle Farrow (Clytemnestra) Photo Aulos Productions

Sophie Harris is utterly un-charming as spoilt brat Electra, whose feelings towards her mother are pure spiteful hate. Amelia Sutcliffe makes Chrysothemis slightly more tempered, although her kleptomaniac tendencies indicate a troubled child. Joseph McAulay makes a reasonable fist of Orestes, genuinely torn between his parents.

It’s all set at Christmas, with the sound of carols winding through the production. Musical director Caroline Lesemann-Elliott has done a really strong job with the chorus of six Furies. Their clear tones bring a properly ethereal tone to the music, while the words – often playing with some of the more pagan aspects of Christianity – provide an appropriate foil to the “old religion” under which Agamemnon is said to have performed his sacrifice.

This begins to become undone when the killing starts. Beagon, who also directs, doesn’t bring out nearly enough nuance from the performances once they have got up into a frenzy. The actual throat-slitting works well. It’s all the wailing and gnashing of teeth around it which hits too much of a hysterical note too early, leaving the production with nowhere to go, in terms of its energy.

There are also several performances from the 18-strong cast which don’t convince as they might. The younger men playing older characters need to stop relying on grey hair powder and look to the physicality of their performances and Daniel Orejon really needs to work out which accent to use for Tyndareus, the patriarch of the family.


James Beagon doesn’t seem to do things by halves. Last year he adapted Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Sword at Sunset for EUTC, in a production which was rather too faithful to its source for its own good.

He has been a lot more ruthless with the Greeks, cutting back the material to achieve a really strong dynamic drive to the piece. But there is still a lot of plot here, and there are too many times when it gets lost in lowered voices, mumbled lines or over-forced exchanges.

Besides the central concept, there are some nicely worked relationships, though. Particularly between Alice Markey’s wise, calming influence as Cassandra and Sarah Compton’s flighty Hermione – Helen’s young daughter who is betrothed to Orestes.

It’s an entertaining piece of grassroots, student theatre which doesn’t outstay its welcome and draws a series of complex relationships down into a clearly understandable plot, while managing to pass comment on the nature of revenge.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (including one interval)
Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, EH9 1PL.
Tuesday 3 – Friday 6 March 2015.
Daily: 7.30pm.
Tickets and further details from: http://www.summerhall.co.uk/2015/a-winters-oresteia/


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