On first entering the set of The Oxford Greek Play’s production of The Furies – with its geometrical shapes, hard panels juxtaposed with soft, cavernous drapes, all drenched in an angry, nightmarish dark red – you are immediately gripped by an expressionist world of oppressive menace. This symbolic treatment, setting the play in an abstract no-where that aims to evoke the interior landscape of a psyche, seems to be the preferred treatment given by most directors to Greek tragedy. But conventions often exist with good reason, and the only measurement here should be effectiveness. The gravitation towards an expressionist staging of Greek tragedy comes from wrestling with the very real problem of making an alien and seemingly unrealistic poetic language appear truthful and convincing to the audience – all the more important for an original-language production. On this count, the production succeeds marvelously as it has the rare power to make the audience shiver. Arabella Currie, both director and translator of the helpful surtitles, imparts a remarkable unity of vision, taking care to use all resources at her disposal to create an immersive psychological world.
This production has the bravery to be fraught with contradictions. The chief problem a modern Furies (traditionally translated as The Eumenides) poses is its inherent misogyny: it is, as written, a blatant propaganda piece justifying the patriarchal basis of Athenian law. The play, for all its mythic symbolism, represents a definite historical moment: the eclipse of a matrilineal society by a patrilineal one. The male principle overpowers the female: the male is the superior virtues of daylight — logic, civilization, cool-headed justice; the female is “mother night”, earth, blood, animalistic revenge. As Clytemnestra’s ghost says to the Furies: “what are you for, except to do evil?” Aeschylus’ moral polarity couldn’t be made clearer.
Textual faithfulness may seem very difficult in the face of such ideology, yet this production unflinchingly faces the play’s discomforting values. Orestes, whose pain is rendered by Niall Docherty with a powerful reserve that steers clear of melodrama, may stumble at first before Athena, but he finally stands tall, every inch the man, when he is vindicated. Jack Taylor’s Apollo struts with Euripidean swagger, just as much a cocky macho mortal as a god, and never loses his certainty in victory even when the Furies outnumber him and surround him. Particularly uncomfortable to watch is the constantly-highlighted passivity of the Furies despite their formidable menace: Apollo grips them by the throat, one by one, and handles them at will; after the trial, they lie prostrate while Orestes stands triumphant. Athena, whose androgyny is well-conveyed by Kaiya Stone in her measured masculine stance, is convincing as an able judge, and Stone’s acting accentuates Athena’s wisdom so effectively that it almost makes one forget the horrific content of her verdict. Most crucially, Clytemnestra’s quiet desperation and impotent rage is conveyed sympathetically by Hannah Marsters in what is perhaps the stand-out performance. In support of the cast, the lighting effects faithfully reproduce the movement of a world from underground darkness to divine light, as the blue gloom and smoke is replaced by a resplendent, almost blinding golden glow. No attempt has been made to spare the gender politics of the text. Precisely the opposite: it has been highlighted, insisted upon. One cannot avert one’s eyes.
Unwavering dedication to spectacle bridges the gap of two millennia to impose its visceral grip on the audience; the mythic poetry is not declamatory, or else mangled with faux-realism, but pierces to the heart with help from the stage’s visual and sonic imagery. Although the director employs a number of purely routine methods, such as dissonant percussive music punctuated with prehistoric flute-calls, copious smoke, and echoing sound effects, they do not draw attention to themselves and remain in the background to be experienced subconsciously. The staging creates a feverish dreamscape and there are some truly inspired images, such as Orestes carrying a transparent shroud wrapped with the burden of Clytemnestra’s body, or the Furies with their bodies contorted in such a way that they seem to be disembodied limbs. The awakening of the chorus from sleep into song, with its whirl of music, dance and rhythmic stamping slowly building up into a powerful contrapuntal frenzy, is a thrilling triumph. All this is capped with a superb command of the Ancient Greek language, spoken with such fluency that it seems not a dead but a living language, with its alternating register of spoken dialogue and poetic music.
However, the production also works extensively against the grain of the language as written, in its attempt to impose its own interpretation. Pythia, instead of confidently declaring the theme of the play in her prologue, spits out inarticulate ravings. Athena comes to her verdict only after a visible process of excruciating birth-pangs. Most crucially, the production ends not with the triumph of Athena but with the Furies occupying her altar, and their final speech, instead of demonstrating acquiescence, is bitterly ironic: Aeschylus’ platitudes about justice, prosperity and happiness is delivered with such defiant vehemence that the sense of the words threatens to break down into meaninglessness under the strain of so contrary an interpretation. The way the language of the play sometimes becomes only another spectacular effect is in fact the most significant flaw in the overall philosophy of the production. It is sometimes difficult to register the words being spoken at all; most notably, Orestes’ entire prayer to Athena is drowned out by the overly-loud orchestra, while the chorus also presents a difficulty in their most hyper-ventilating neurotic moments. However, this is not to suggest that it is the production’s duty to let the audience, most of whom are illiterate in the classical languages, hear every word, and it is clear why bold effects may be preferred in imparting the sense of the play. There may be no good solution to the difficulties of original-language Greek tragedy productions. From a spectator’s perspective, what is most important is that the actors speak with a confident command of their language; in this regard, the acting is near-perfect.
The task of bringing a Greek tragedy to life as closely as it would have been originally spoken is a truly delicate task, and it’s harder to think of a more challenging project than The Furies, so great is the gap between Aeschylus’ devout moral certitude from our modern sensibilities. A great production must face the task and strive to reconcile ancient and modern in an aesthetically-pleasing and convincing whole. Notwithstanding its flaws, The Oxford Greek Play production achieves this, and that is the most important success that any play can hope for.
‘The Furies’ is running at The Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 19th October. Tickets can be purchased from the Playhouse website.