if only we knew now what we knew then…

19/06/2010 at 6:37 pm 4 comments

presented by the Residents, Sydney Theatre Company, June 2010

The story retold; as it has for thousands of years, as it must continue to be iterated until the human beast finally learns the folly of hubris – beginning with the launch of a thousand ships and ending with – well I would be loath to ruin the surprise. There’s something a little unnerving in the idea that in the mass media of the ancients the topic of war was discussed in depth. For Aeschylus and his peers were the social commentators of the day, the CNN or Fox Networks of the time. Tales like the Oresteia were as much reportage from the front as they were religious or political propaganda (see where I’m going with this) – and foremost; they were the popular form of spreading histories, myths and ideas. The difference is of course that mass media these days is reduced to a sound bite, with a veil of objectivity skewed toward sensationalism. This stuff gets under the skin of it.

It’s not as though the ancient Greeks were above mythologising their heroes; far from it. But neither did they pretend otherwise, and to the point, nor were they afraid to detail the wider impact of certain ‘heroic’ actions on the political and personal realms. I’m bothered by the realisation that this story is the one that needs to be told about our modern wars, about our modern pride; and yet it’s somewhat marginalised to the niche audiences of the Wharf, and then even more so through a heightened metatheatre – but I momentarily digress. My point is that the ripe currency of the Oresteian legend is of such significance in this world now, today – but the real tragedy is that the mass audience doesn’t want to hear it. Like looking at those pictures of oil soaked pelicans for too long will drive you mad with rage and impotence.

I wrote last year that the STC’s War Of The Roses was ‘the war play to end all war plays’. On reflection this is a cute line but hopelessly naive. In truth, coming off the back of what seemed an endless production line of anti-war-theatre down at Hickson Rd, the prospect of any more began to feel as galling as the war itself. OK maybe not quite that galling, but you get the idea. It felt as though Roses had an epic finality to it, that it said everything that needed to be said about war, and as such maybe we can move on. And maybe we did, but unfortunately the wars themselves did not. It seems the stories must be told, again and again, even if the wars do one day stop, we must keep these tales close as a warning against futility. Thus, the Residents and Tom Wright step in with their particular brand of blood-soaked, stylised strangeness that is Oresteia.

Wright’s adaptation is pretty strict to the original. There are a few tweaks here and there to suit the modern dialect, but overall he is true to the visceral metaphors and bestial tones of Aeschylus’ trilogy. It’s probably been trimmed a little, as it feel more like one play of two halves, than three full tragedies. But all the broad strokes are there, in traditional Greek forma, from the opening choral prelude to the ultra-convenient deus ex machinations of Apollo at the close. It’s this close following of convention that puts this production on a tightrope, at once between the oppositional poles of the ancient text and the post-theatrical simulacra of the performance itself. Alright, now we’ve all finished creaming ourselves with the critical jargon, let’s see if I can explain what the hell I mean by that.

On the one hand, we have a straight delivery of an ancient text. The staging is sparse, all the violence happens offstage, our imaginations are allowed to soak in the fertile language – in many ways it’s as we might have seen in Athens circa 450 BC (set & costumes notwithstanding). At the same time there are too many anachronisms for this to play to an audience in 2010 if you deliver it ‘straight’. Like the unblinking allegiance to the Gods’ will. Like Apollo’s brutal description of the mother-as-vessel-to-the-father’s-seed; that might have gone fo’shizzle in the days of old but we don’t play that here in 21C. So throughout this quite conservative take on Aeschylus’ work (as the text stands) we get little winks and nudges to break down the ‘truth’ of the narrative into pieces that make such things more acceptable, so begins the ‘perversion of reality’ in the narrative, as Baudrillard might have put it. There are layers of symbolism and image theatre to take the story further into metaphorical terrain, until this faithful adaptation has become its own post-modern organism; quite removed from the place where it began. It was always an ambitious, tightly strung concept to balance on, and one which succeeds irrespective of whether one gets it or likes it or not – simply because it was reached for.

It’s a pastiche, balancing realism with absurdism and expressionism, even hints of commedia del’arte are apparent (in the characterisation of Aegisthos). A high contrast to the hard realism found in portrayals of Orestes and Electra, or the epic villainy of Clytemenestra, or the detached, perpetually pensive observances of the chorus. The costuming is another thing again. Luxurious silk blouses for the slaves, but Agamemnon comes in wearing drab jeans and of all things, a sports jacket. His return from war is almost as if he’s come back from a ten year sojourn to the corner shop; casual, even apathetic – he’s certainly not proud (nor should he be), resisting the temptations of ego to the very last. One gets the impression this King would wear a regal suit like a yoke on his neck. Other costuming choices are quite bizarre, reflecting a myriad of styles from modern day hoodies to formal wear and even gymnastics garb (don’t ask).

It’s this pastiche approach that creates the metatheatre I referred to earlier, which has its own highly visible narrative within the production. It’s close, but not seamless, and I wonder if there’s a little too much look-what-we’re-doing-here that ultimately dilutes the power of the text itself. You know; milk bottles, man in a dress, elevator doors, blood everywhere. It’s hard enough to look these issues squarely in the face – do we need a metanarrative to make it easier? Should such abstraction of form be a distraction of content, or should it widen and magnify our understanding of what we are seeing? I guess that I am even asking these questions is a step in the right direction. I’m not sure I got everything there is to get out of this production, but at the same time – it got me thinking.

This is my first chance to see the Residents in action (I know, where have I been?); and I tried not to carry too much in the way of expectations coming in. Their reputation is for risk – and I’m a bit concerned that this is so because they tend to get all sexy and grope one another a lot. They’re certainly hot, and talented to boot, but do we really need all that vaginal nuzzling? The performances are strong, everything you can want from a committed ensemble. Naturally one might make different choices but it’s hard to find fault in those that are made. As interpretations of characters go, I have to admit they are for the most part quite conservative. And that’s not a criticism, just an observation; in collaborative work it’s vital to find balance between risk and stability, and ultimately the responsibility is to the text, and the director’s vision. But as the developmental arm for the Sydney Theatre Company; I for one am keen to see them really stretch into new work, not just exotic revisitations of the canon.

As I was writing this, struggling to find the words to describe the production; someone tweeted me ‘How was Oresteia?’ I quickly replied (in 140 characters or less): “worth a look. in a kind of isn’t this tragic violence a bit too sexy kind of way.” Quick thinking. Unedited. Sums it up.

ORESTEIA plays at The Wharf, Sydney Theatre Company, until July 4, 2010
featuring Alice Ansara, Cameron Goodall, Ursula Mills, Julia Ohannessian, Zindzi Okenyo, Richard Pyros, Sophie Ross, Tahki Saul, Brett Stiller

Entry filed under: Inside Theatre REVIEWS, Sydney THEATRE. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .


4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. anvildrops  |  19/06/2010 at 7:38 pm


    note to the management at the wharf. Excellent idea to have music happening post show. I was with a group of seven or eight people who really wanted to stay and have a drink, to chat about the production and fully enjoy the experience.

    I know this is a thing for the precinct, making that post-show space available to really create a sense of a theatre vibe happening in this city. Unfortunately the music, while of an appropriate tone and quality, was turned up far too loud and we couldn’t hear ourselves think. So we left. But if it had just been at a reasonable level we would have stayed.

  • 2. It Box @ All Around the World News  |  19/06/2010 at 11:18 pm

    Critical Mass…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  • 3. Kate  |  14/07/2010 at 2:54 pm

    This was a great lengthy and detailed post!

  • […] Exhibits A-E Oresteia, Thyestes, The Seagull, Medea, The […]


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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

since 2009

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