Posted inCultures

Orestes at the Playhouse : A (virtual) product of its time

To say that this production of Orestes is a product of its time would be an understatement. This is emphasised by the virtual format but anyone viewing the play (which is now available to watch on the Faculty of Classics’ YouTube channel) would be left in no doubt that Covid 19 has altered every aspect of what this production could have been. Yet, I would argue that it was a complete success even with these trials and tribulations.

To begin, I will quickly summarise the plot of the original Greek play, which the Oxford Playhouse production adheres to, but with a few modernising elements that will be discussed later in this review. Euripides’ play follows the consequences of Orestes murdering his mother Clytemnestra in order to avenge the death of his father Agamemnon. Also caught up in this story are Electra (Orestes’ sister) and Pylades (traditionally depicted as his close friend, but the more romantic elements of their interactions seem to suggest otherwise), who are both sentenced to death along with Orestes. The three then attempt to kidnap and murder Helen of Troy (as revenge for her husband Menelaus sentencing them to death) and the god Apollo intervenes and prevents the act. The play is far more complex than this but a short introduction will be helpful for understanding this review.

Firstly, the setting must be discussed as it is the most noticeable difference to any other production of Orestes. The majority of the dialogue between the characters is set within the parameters of a traditional Zoom meeting where they speak directly to the camera, with some insertion of what I assume is prerecorded material of a series of landscapes and the Classicists acting as pundits (which will be addressed later). The Zoom meeting evolves into a gameshow, interview and other smaller conversations which are signified either by shifts in the music or large graphics coming across the screen. My favourite of these was the comedy roast which gave both a lighter feeling to what could be an incredibly bleak play and the audience an understanding of how these characters interact with each other, which is best exemplified in the chaotic delivery of Orestes’ roast compared to that of Electra or Pylades. The small boxes on screen also give the viewer a sense of claustrophobia, especially in the transitions between scenes where the actors dance, read or pace around their rooms. 

This format seems surprisingly well-suited to Greek tragedy because through this oppressive environment it is very easy for the audience to empathise with the characters and to a certain extent forget that this could have been non-virtual play. In fact, I’m of the opinion that setting this play virtually enhances it to a certain extent, because it allows for the interactive elements and the overlaid graphics to create a unique viewing experience. The Apollo Vision ‘channel’ that this play is supposedly being viewed from helps extend the action into the interval. The audience votes on the outcome of the trial using a virtual polling system with its own terms and conditions, which I found particularly entertaining. However, I would argue that it is not the set design that makes a play, it’s the actors, so they must be discussed at length.

When I was thinking about writing this review, I struggled to decide which member of the cast was particularly outstanding, so I have decided to mention each actor in turn as all of their performances were equally enjoyable. Zakkai Goriely immediately springs to mind, thanks to their depiction of Orestes as a tormented almost childish figure, who still retains enough charm for this performance to be eye-catching. This is in turn helped by their costume and makeup choices, which are the complete opposite of Electra’s more practical look. Anwār Omeish gives a captivating performance as Electra, with both her monologue, comedy roast and Greek conversation being filled with emotion and nuance, which makes the audience empathise with her struggle through a difficult childhood and the violent actions of her wayward brother. The two Trojan prisoners played by Shreya Dua and Ollie Khurshid are very sensitively portrayed, and the audience gains an understanding of the pain and anger caused by the Trojan war and the complicated dynamic that surrounds discussion of Helen.

Played by Ailbhe Sweeney, Helen is depicted as a shadow of her former self whilst still being used by the Gods to manipulate both the characters and the audience. She is very successfully portrayed as an entertaining character in her own right who can also irritate pretty much every other character in the show. Hermione (played by Abi Watkinson) is an excellent example of this, presenting the annoyance of being ordered about by Helen very well, even though she says very little. Syren Singh’s Menelaus is also played as the shadow of the hero depicted in the Iliad, but this is presented in a comedic fashion during the roast segment, unlike the darker depiction of Helen’s decline throughout the play.

Grace Akatsu gives an excellent and very warm performance as Pylades and she absolutely succeeds in both humanising Orestes and creating a feeling of intimacy between the two characters. Apollo could be seen as a more antagonistic character, but Philippa Lang gives such a charismatic performance that it is very difficult to not be excited when he begins to meddle in the life of Orestes, and the constant nods to him being in control of the narrative via ApolloVision started to seem more fun than sinister. All in all, this cast was fantastic and they created a very enjoyable visual experience whilst catapulting the story of Orestes into the modern age.

The translation was incredibly natural, and the Greek dialogue between Electra and Helen was executed exceptionally well. There were lots of references to Classics as a discipline, my favourite being Pylades’ little nod to him and Orestes being ‘very good friends’. The Classicists as American-style news anchors was a stroke of genius, because it gave the audience a chance to understand a little bit more about modern analysis of the play and the wider historical context. This play walks the very difficult tightrope of being faithful to the source material and appealing to a modern audience and I would argue that this is done highly successfully and that this was a brilliant production. My only wish is that it could one day be performed in-person, as I would be running to get tickets.