Western civilization has done well by the griefs of the House of Atreus. From Aeschylus’s Oresteia to plays by Sophocles and Euripides, the cycles of murder, revenge and progress towards justice and civilization have held centre stage for some twenty five centuries. There are numerous productions of Ancient Greek tragedy and comedy around Greece every summer. The National Theatre of Northern Greece has staged Euripides’ Orestes in the open air Theatro Dassous (Forest Theatre) where it played for two performances before embarking on a national tour that will take it from Cyprus to Epidaurus before returning to Thessaloniki in September.
I saw the premiere performance on July 12, 2018 and it was impressive. Orestes tells the story of the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra who murders his mother in revenge for her slaughter of her husband. The play opens six days after the murder and Orestes has been driven mad by the avenging Furies for his action.
The chorus in Orestes
His sister Electra stands by his bed while the people of Argos are deciding the fate of the murderer. Orestes tells us that he was ordered by Apollo to kill his mother. The Beautiful Helen appears and she blames the gods for her elopement with Paris. A raging Tyndareus, the father of Clytemnestra arrives and he is furious and abusive towards his grandson Orestes. Menelaus shows up and waffles about the fate of Orestes but Orestes’ friend Pylades is steadfast. The play is wrapped up by the deus ex machina device where a god, in this case Apollo, appears and sends Orestes to Athens to be judged by the gods.
There are a number of strong performances. Ioanna Kolliopoulou plays a very dramatic and moving Electra. Her brother is almost delirious a few days after he has murdered their mother and she is left in the palace with Helen and her daughter Hermione. She needs to show strength, grief and courage and Kolliopoulou does all of it.
Christos Stylianou as Orestes has committed matricide and the invisible Furies are pursuing him like the avenging spirits that they are. Stylianou must convey fear, guilt and behaviour tantamount to madness. A tough role done superbly by Stylianou.
Helen (Dafni Lamprogianni) appears with sun glasses, a stylish purple dress and is still the sexual magnet. She is afraid to go to her sister’s grave after all the deaths and destruction she caused by her elopement. An interesting take on the woman who launched a thousand ships.
In this modern dress production, Menelaus, played by Christodoulos Stylianou, appears like a naval officer (he is king of Sparta) and speaks in deadpan tones. He does show greater emotional range later in the play. His daughter Hermione (Marianna Pouregka) is a nice virgin who will make a nice wife eventually.
Helen has a Phrygian slave and Director Yannis Anastasakis has Christos Stergioglou play him for comedy as a Trojan. The slave conveys information to the audience and is terrified for his life. After all the drama, he is a welcome piece of comic relief done well by Stergioglou.
A central problem of staging Ancient Greek tragedy, aside from the general paucity of information about how it was done, is the even greater ignorance about the presentation of the Chorus. Greek tragedy was probably closer to opera than a straight play and scholars are certain that the Chorus sang and probably danced.
Pylades, Orestes and Electra
The Chorus of Orestes consists of twelve young women who are Electra’s friends. They wear conservative but stylish dresses and speak separately and in unison and sing. They sing recitatives and some melodic verses with musical accompaniment composed by Babis Papadopoulos. Their movements (by Alexis Tsiamoglu) are well coordinated and appropriate and the result is a good example of what can be done with the Chorus.
The Theatro Dassous has a large semi-circular playing area and it is not always easy to position actors without having them very far apart. The theatre’s acoustics are not the best and the actors need to face the audience to be heard. Anastasakis’s direction minimized those problems with intelligent use of the space.
Orestes takes place outside the palace of Argos. The set of this production consisted of a large structure surrounded by scaffolding and enveloped by greens nets. There was a wheelbarrow, a barrel and a bucket in front of the palace and the playing area was cordoned off with a black and yellow tape. In other words, this looked like the palace was undergoing serious renovation and we were looking at a construction site.
There may be a reason for some of that but I could not figure it out. The presence of the wheelbarrow and the bucket were intentional for the rest, let’s just say it was inappropriate and leave it at that.
The play ends with Apollo making a somewhat vacuous wish about peace. Anastasakis adds a short piece of dissonant music. We all know wishes for peace are empty words and the dissonant music was a brilliant stroke.
A highly commendable production overall.
Orestes by Euripides in a translation by Yorgos Blanas opened on July 12, 2018 for two performances at the Theatro Dassous, Thessaloniki and will tour Cyprus and Greece until September 16, 2018.
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