Orestes: Re-Examined @ Southwark Playhouse, London

cast list
Matthew Howard, Adrian Francis, Laura Fautley, Kitty Randle, Filip Krenus

directed by
Emma Gersch
This contemporary re-working of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia begins in an unexpected manner.

Brisk, clipboard-wielding officials usher the audience into the bar, handing out visitor passes for the conference that is to follow: the city of Argos is to be rebuilt, reborn, rebranded.

This allows for a few knowing nods to the building work that is occurring just outside the venue and the occasional rumble of trains overhead (Southwark Playhouse is located under the arches at London Bridge station).

Just as Menelaus chipper deputy is beginning his spiel about urban improvement and progress, the ceremony is disrupted by a gang of rebels (rebel status connoted by their uniform of torn vests and grubby combat trousers), who urge the audience to follow them towards the main performance space.

From here on in the production reverts to something more conventional. Having murdered his mother, Clytemnestra, in revenge for her slaying of his father, Agamemnon, following his return from the Trojan War, Orestes is now tormented by Furies – his guilt given physical form – whom here have been transformed into this band of angry, mostly female rebels. They are supposed to represent societys unseen, unnoticed, unwanted, and they demand to be heard they demand justice.

The Furies have taken Orestes hostage so that he may pay for his crime. The cases for and against are put to the audience, with a business-suited Athena acting as mediator, and at the end the audience are asked to act as jury and pass a verdict on whether he should be punished (which is achieved by everyone dropping coloured balls indictating their preference into a tube).

The production is the work of Full Tilt Theatre, the resident company at Bath Spa University, and the large cast is a mix of professionals, recent graduates and current students. Director (and senior lecturer at Bath Spa) Emma Gersch makes good use of the space, turning the subterranean dankness into an asset. The production has been traverse staged with Orestes suspended from chains on one wall while the Furies mass and clamber on the other. There are some very well-executed sequences, particularly when the Furies slowly advance on the bound Orestes, their voices rising and falling in song. Kitty Randles hollow-eyed pleading as Electra and the use of Clytemnestras blood stained dress to reanimate the slain queen and haunt her son are also memorable moments. The notion of justice, of the need for a fair hearing, is made to feel acutely relevant without hammering the point home.

The framing device of the conference, while initially wryly amusing, doesnt really cohere with what follows and feels a little bit like a gimmick, perhaps all the more so because it recalls a recent use of the same space, Fin Kennedys Unstated, in which the bar was used to represent the holding area in a detention centre for asylum seekers (though in that case the clipboard wielders were a lot less polite).

The size of the cast means the standard of performances does waver and Matthew Howards floppy haired as Orestes seems out of depth in the key role. While it never quite keeps to its stated aim of dragging the story into the here and now, in terms of atmosphere and in making the audience genuinely engage with the ambiguity of the situation, the production delivers.

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