Thursday, June 24, 2010

Oresteia by Aeschylus, adapted and directed by Tom Wright

Oresteia by Aeschylus, adapted and directed by Tom Wright. Sydney Theatre Company Residents at Wharf 1, June 5 - 27, 2010.

Reviewed by Frank McKone, June 22.

The Residents have been together as a permanent company of actors within the Sydney Theatre Company for a year now. This is their second mainstage production and the value of being able to work together consistently shows in this concentrated, highly focussed performance of Aeschylus’ moral tale of the cursed generations of the House of Atreus.

It was Meet the Actors night which I chose for the opportunity to find out how the transition from the earlier STC Actors’ Company to The Residents is progressing. The play, based mainly on Aeschylus’ first two plays rounded off by Apollo’s speech from the third (defending Orestes in Athene’s court, where the black and white pebbles are even in number but Athene adds her white pebble to acquit), ran for nearly three hours (including interval), followed by questions from the audience to Tom Wright and the actors. This made for a highly satisfying evening from 6.30 to after 10pm, in which time slipped by very easily.

This production was my kind of drama. Imagery was used symbolically, tension and focus were created through stillness, atmosphere developed from simple vocal harmonies, horror created in backlit shadow forms, reinforced by bloodied bodies frozen in death, and the story told in clear poetic rhythms. Though in “modern” dress, often more undressed, the staging is a simple open space in front of three double translucent doors which open and close like elevator doors to reveal or hide, or become shadow-puppet screens, as needed.

For me the modern symbols, meant to cue the audience in to elements of the story, were not all successful. The loss of childhood was represented by a door opening on a spinning wheel of a child’s scooter, yet the story is entirely set in Aeschylus’ Ancient Greece. I had the same problem of mismatch with the unattractive anorak used by the soldier and later by Orestes to represent hard-bitten travel. Yet the use of simple clinging shifts for the chorus women and Clytemnestra in the first act worked very well to represent the vulnerability of women, not only in the ancient militaristic world of the war on Troy, but in modern times still. Dressing Aegisthus in the same shift as the women wore in act one certainly made a humorous, and effective, point about his role in contrast to the cuckolded husband Agamemnon. After Clytemnestra has killed Agamemnon, in act two she and the chorus women are dressed as successful modern women, while Aegisthus might be described as a petty dictator pretending to be metrosexual. No wonder her surviving children, Orestes and Electra, feel they must destroy their mother and her toy-boy king.

The audience raised the question of male/female balance in Wright’s interpretation. Richard Pyros, who played Aegisthus, thought that the sexual and the violent aspects fell equally on both sexes. Then he described his experience, while acting, of an absolute “line down the middle” between the male and female characters but feeling “weird falling on both sides at once” in his role.

This kind of commentary and the discussion it generated was a mark of the group understanding among The Residents. The company was formed by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton as a deliberate contrast to the previous STC Actors’ Company, which Robyn Nevin, based on her early experiences in Rex Cramphorn’s Performance Syndicate, had structured to include iconic actors well advanced in their careers to work with and to be mentors for young up-and-comers. Despite her good intentions, this system finally became unworkable.

The Residents, instead, are all actors showing great promise early in their careers, with an experienced associate director working at one remove from Blanchett and Upton, the overall Sydney Theatre Company artistic directors. The actors described being auditioned through a workshop process and finding themselves able to take risks in their work which are not possible when auditioning for specific parts as freelance actors. They talked of the security of having long-term membership, of working on many different projects (especially including theatre education programs), of “getting to know people as people” and developing a “different sense of trust”. I can only say that this looks like my kind of theatre company.

Since the run of Oresteia ends this weekend, there is little time for you to see it. Get there if you can, but certainly keep your wits about you for when The Residents appear again in STC’s Next Stage, Education or Main Stage program. Check out .