This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
Aeschylus’ Oresteia emerged during the period of Athenian prosperity and productivity that followed the Persian Wars. Thematically, it is as rich as anything that has been written since, containing an abundance of symbolism, allegory and outright celebration of Athenian pre-eminence. The Furies, the third and final act of the trilogy, and currently being performed at the Oxford Playhouse, is the culmination of Aeschylus’ intent, representing the ultimate triumph of order over chaos, of harmony over savagery, and the establishment of justice as a civic responsibility. Synchronising moral and aesthetic themes seamlessly, director (and translator) Arabella Currie has succeeded in channelling these motifs into an absorbing production.
Presented by Oxford University Classical Drama Society and performed entirely in ancient Greek (with English surtitles), The Furies tells the story of Orestes’ salvation at the hands of a jury of Athenian citizens. Having avenged his father by murdering his mother and consequently pursued by the vile eponymous deities of vengeance, Orestes seeks Apollo’s assistance at Delphi. Apollo sends him to Athens, where he defends Orestes against The Furies’ prosecution and the goddess Athena presides over the trial. The dilemma that runs through the entire play is stark and simple: is it worse to slay your own mother, or leave your father’s death unavenged?
It is an inexplicable facet of Greek tragedy, with very few exceptions, that violence never takes place on stage. Premonitions and recollections of violence abound, but never does the sword pierce flesh in the eyes of the audience. When translating the genre and presenting it in a modern context therefore, there can be a tangible lack of substance. This is undoubtedly true of The Furies; for all their threats of abomination, Aeschylus never has them attack Orestes. Yet this potential weakness is rendered irrelevant by the impactful nature of the play.
This interpretation is an enthralling assault on the senses. Visually, the set is gloriously evocative; great arcing swathes of drapery contrast with large, angular blocks, all bathed in the fluctuating red hues of the background, echoing the play’s fundamental dispute between the ancient, primal Furies and the strict imposition of ‘modern’ justice. These elements move and the colours shift perceptibly as the play progresses, creating a series of impressive set-pieces.
Designer Abby Clarke reveals in the programme notes that she was inspired by Francis Bacon’s Eumenides triptych and by ‘cave-like structures and distorted figures found within the sketches and sculptures of Henry Moore’. The surreality of these influences bleeds through, establishing an otherness, a foreignness that somehow elevates the play’s emotions. When combined with the ethereal cacophony of string scratches and gong rolls that make up composer Joseph Currie’s accompaniment, the raw physicality of Arabella Currie’s direction, and the echoing verses of unintelligible (for me, at least) Greek, the effect is remarkably arresting.
This strangeness, redolent of a society that remains frustratingly intangible, is elevated by the commendably inhuman performances from the cast, Niall Docherty’s Orestes aside – his tormented protagonist is in fact the one relatable character. Jack Taylor is a sinuous, borderline salacious Apollo, his baleful demeanour simultaneously playful yet definite. Kaiya Stone’s Athena, dressed in sleek gold, is predictably yet not inappropriately impassive. And The Furies themselves, clad in scraps of black and resembling some nightmare corruption of maternity, are effective, if disconcerting, in their ritualistic interaction. They shriek, gabble, chant and sing, at times simultaneously, at times over the top of each other, and one is left drained by their sheer, demonic vitality.
The Furies marks the triumphant conclusion of the Oxford University Classical Drama Society’s adaptation of the Oresteia, originally began in 2008. It is genuinely an experience like no other, to see, and hear, a performance of Greek tragedy in its original language. Brilliantly conceived and intelligently executed, The Furies is a thoroughly engaging piece of theatre. Do not miss it.