Agamemnon at Oxford

“The best production of a Greek play I’ve ever seen” one gentleman remarked to me as we walked down Cornmarket after Friday’s matinee performance.

I could understand why he felt that. It was a production that took the text on its own terms, a masterpiece of ceremonial drama as performed during a religious festival, not a fumbling early attempt at realistic theatre.

The set was a blood-red door set against a black background. The acting level came down from this royal entrance by steps to the front of the stage. The chorus, six male singers and six female dancers, used the lower two levels, giving as good a suggestion of being in an orkhestra as is possible with a proscenium arch. The Watchman (Barney Norris) who opened the play perched on scaffolding discreetly positioned to one side of the stage. A small band of musicians performed throughout, almost out of view on the same side.

The chorus wore black robes, and the actors (not quite authentically called ‘protagonists’ in the programme – surely there was only one protagonist in an Athenian play) were ‘suitably attired’. I am sorry if A.E. Housman’s phrase from his ‘Fragment of a Greek Tragedy’ evokes a hint of satire – none is here intended. The costumes were really just right, Clytemnestra’s (Kassandra Jackson) bright and golden, Agamemnon’s (Tom Mackenzie) traditionally heroic, and so on. The carpet, that other essential piece of fabric, was generously large – apparently endless – and generously decorated, so that the ‘esti thalassa..’ speech, claiming that no economies need be made in the palace, was completely justified. As it was being unrolled it made an unexpected loud swishing sound like the sound of surf on pebbles.

What Classicists will probably be most keen to hear about is the quality of the spoken and sung Greek.

My impression is that in almost every way it was superb. I could not fault the vowels; if I had to quibble I might say that the distinction between aspirated and unaspirated consonants was not always preserved. But the standard was very high. Cassandra (Emma Pearce) even delivered some of her most poignant lines with a tonic accent, a difficult feat and a rare treat.

The pace was stately, and the surtitles, a translation by Oliver Thomas, were impeccably synchronised, so that even those (like me) whose Greek is rusty could follow most of it. Incidentally, those surtitles must demand of the actors an extra degree of accuracy. No one can get away with missing out a couple of lines.

Which reminds me that the text was indeed cut, so that the play ran for just two hours. I missed the geographical tour as Clytemnestra tells of the chain of beacons from Troy to Mycenae. I didn’t spot the chorus’ account of the eagles and the hare – I don’t think I dropped off at that point! 

What took time, apart from the deliberate pace of the spoken Greek, were the sung, and danced, choruses. The singers, from counter-tenor to bass, were all choral scholars or music students, most with operatic experience, and it showed. The music that they sang, written by Tim Benjamin, a former winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year composer’s award, was mostly monodic, but as the drama progressed there were open fifths and fourths, and finally real minor chords. The economy of style, together with the small number of instruments, reminded me strongly of Britten’s Curlew River. I was not surprised to read that the Choral Director, Oliver Hamilton, had worked on that Church Parable.

Every word that the chorus uttered, singly or together, was sung, even the individual contributions on hearing the death-cries of the King. This underlined how far Aeschylus is from realistic drama. When studying the text we puzzle over these seemingly pointless contributions – why don’t these 12 men rush into the palace and do something? When they sing, we understand why not. By the way, the matinee was attended largely by school parties – three cheers for their teachers for bringing them – and the students were on the whole very well-behaved. One of the only two or three titters of the afternoon came when a counter-tenor or alto sang alone, and that was a momentary one.

Another Curlew River influence – or rather Noh Play influence – was on movement and gesture. Actors were completely still except when a significant gesture was needed. The Herald (Raymond Blankenhorn) had rather large gestures, which reminded me rather unfortunately of a marionette, but I do like the minimal style.
I shall not mention everyone involved. The play website gives the full details. Incidentally, when I was speaking to the designer of the site, he told me that he is involved in setting up a website for the Oxford Latin Course, which should be on line in December.
The one other person whose name caught my eye is our good friend Lizzie, Elizabeth Sandis of Oxford Classical Outreach. (Note to Lizzie – you are still called Belcher on that page!) She had the grand title of Executive Producer, so to her, and to all who put the show on, hearty congratulations.

When I said to Clytemnestra’s mum, who was sitting next to me, after the show that she must be very proud, I wasn’t just being polite.


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