26 November 2011
"at the Oxford Playhouse."
By: Julia Gasper.
This production of Aeschylus’s tragedy, The Libation Bearers, here re-titled Clytemnestra, is the Oxford Greek Play
- a triennial event in which students perform a classical drama in the original language. Although most of the
audience had to follow the text in translation on a screen, the performance was still rivetting and the story
largely told itself in mime and through a daring and original musical score composed and directed by Alexander
The words were rhythmically intoned, almost chanted, with an accompaniment of percussive tapping and thrumming and
a wide range of musical effects, using flutes, and many other instruments. At times we heard what sounded like
Indian or African drums, at other times there were sounds that carried us away to South America, while the scenery
and many of the costumes were Japanese in style, with translucent screens and fans. The actors used stylized
motions like a Japanese No play or possibly, at times, reminiscent of the Indian art of telling a story through
dance and mime, This helped the story to transcend its Greek setting and go global. If you did not follow the
words, you could still follow the story through gesture and tone of voice.
The royal family of Mycenae is caught in a cycle of seemingly endless revenge and bloodshed. In the opening scene,
Orestes (Jack Noutch) mourns at the grave of his father, King Agamemnon, murdered on his return from the Trojan
war. He is re-united with his sister Electra (Amber Hussein) who welcomes him back from a seven-year exile, and
rejoices to hear that the god Apollo has given him a mission to avenge his father. But Orestes is facing a dilemma.
The person who murdered his father was none other than his mother, Queen Clytemnestra, (Lucy Jackson) who now rules
in his place, with her lover Aegisthus. Can it really be Orestes’ mission to carry out such a frightful, matricidal
Urged on by the fierce and resentful girl Electra, who hates her mother, and the Chorus, who mourn their lost
master, Orestes moves swiftly to carry out the mission. But as soon as he has done the deed he is overcome with
shame and unspeakable horror. While Electra and the Chorus rejoice, he is beset by the Furies, fearful demons who
pursue him demanding revenge for his slain mother. They haunt and reproach him, like living personifications of
guilt. Instead of claiming his inheritance and kingdom, Orestes, feeling alone and accursed, is driven to the edge
of madness. “I am stained by the victory that is no gain,” he concludes.
The myth can be interpreted in many different ways. Freud, Jung, and Robert Graves have all expounded it. One thing
it represents, without a doubt, is the struggle of prehistoric societies to replace the revenge ethic with a more
civilized system of retribution. On many Mediterranean islands, such as Sicily and Corsica, the vendetta system
remained the prevalent form of justice until modern times, and of course, a primitive instinct for revenge lives
inside all of us. The tension in the story is the conflict between our own feeling that revenge is in a sense
“natural” and the other feeling, that it is brutal and anarchic. If Orestes had thought as carefully as Hamlet, he
would have anticipated the outcome of his terrible act. This is a dark play of unalleviated tragedy, performed here
in a way that is imaginative and mesmerizing.