Culture  Rewriting tragedy

Player's Theatre updates The Oresteia

Take nine hours of hardcore Greek tragedy, condense into an hour and a half, re-write and modernize the script, add songs and dance, rehearse, and perform by the second week of winter semester. This does not sound like an easy task, yet it is the one Max Zidel decided to take on. As a lover of Greek theatre, he felt these ancient plays needed to be returned to the stage, with a contemporary spin. And so, sparked by Ted Hughes’ translation, Zidel has rewritten The Oresteia by Aeschylus – three plays surrounding the actions of Agamemnon and the repercussions they have throughout his family. Currently showing at Players’ Theatre, this blast of ingenuity is quite unlike other student productions.

Once settled in their seats, the audience is dropped into the midst of the Trojan War. The House of Atreus and its series of incestuous murders are the focus of the narrative: Agamemnon must decide whether to sacrifice his daughter to save his army. His wife Clytemnestra is torn between love of her returned husband and the desire to avenge her daughter’s murder. His son Orestes wishes to avenge his father’s death, yet craves the love of his murderous mother. All three moral conundrums could indeed constitute plays in themselves. The play rushes past extremely quickly, and occasionally it feels as if more time is needed to penetrate into the complexity of these issues. Theatre-goers are used to tragedy which allows us the space to puzzle over one such dilemma, often for hours on end – after all, Hamlet faces just one (albeit difficult) question.

Zidel has purposely not provided us, or his characters, with this breathing space. Everything occurs in the heat of the moment – this is an undeniably sensational play. It is a play for the television generation – for the generation with a short attention span and a desire for diversity. Time is not spent on soliloquies. Instead, the play is divided into lots of short, but intense, emotional experiences. From these situations the action suddenly turns to song and dance, sometimes to comedy. Nevertheless, some moments retain their emotional yearn. The first half climaxes in Clytemnestra’s strangulation of Agamemnon. Actor Jamie Munro’s devilish look turns sharply on her husband. She climbs upon him, throttling him in a sadistic and blatantly erotic act of vengeance.

The play opens, conventionally, with a prophecy. The Chorus tell us that Orestes will kill his own mother. Cleverly, the voices of prophecy return to haunt Orestes as he tussles with his decision. Adding a contemporary perspective, the haunting voices of the chorus – embodied by a dancing and seductive group of women – act as a psychological voice. Interpretable as either Orestes’ conscience or subconscious, they vocalize the violent and conflicting tensions ever-present in the psyche of Greek theatre’s tragic protagonists.

Zidel said he was keen to shift the emphasis from the theme of justice to that of psychological choice. For the Greeks, the three plays of The Oresteia exhibited the full force of justice. In its original version, they would end without a tragic conclusion; the court upholds the law and everyone is supposedly satisfied. In our age of persistent uncertainty and deconstruction, however, justice cannot be upheld so easily. Instead, in Players’ version, Orestes is tortured by the impossibility of choice, right to the tragic finale. In his rewriting, Zidel has added the imagery of water to the script, enabling the prophecy to take on a metaphysical dimension in lines such as, “a reflection in water is a choice.” This is not Narcissus staring straight into the lake, seeing only himself; instead, Orestes faces the flickering tide of images, as light plays upon the surface of water. He chooses the version of himself he wants to see; he must decide whether and how to follow the prophetic voices rattling through his mind.

Attempting to combine contemporary and ancient theatrical modes is evidently a difficult feat. Player’s production is by no means perfect – some of the dancing is ill-timed, and the singing veers out of harmony. But, I do not think student theatre’s purpose should be to provide pitch-perfect singing. Instead, this is a worthy “experiment,” as Zidel described it, and a fine example of what student theatre is able to achieve, in contrast with larger theatres, which could not take on the risk of such an audacious director.

The Oresteia is on at Player’s Theatre, 3rd floor of the Shatner building, from January 26 to 29, at 8 p.m.  Tickets available here

See previous coverage of The Oresteia here