Lyceum Theatre (EIF), Edinburgh – until 27 August 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Huge and elemental forces drive This Restless House, the version of the Oresteia by Zinnie Harris originally produced by the Citizens’ Glasgow and the National Theatre of Scotland last year.
Revived by the Edinburgh International Festival at the Lyceum, this is a production which has genuine power, even if this comes at the expense of some cohesion.
Aeschylus’s trilogy – about the fallout from the Trojan War, murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra, his avenging by their children Orestes and Electra and the curse of the house of Atreus – is by any standards one of the foundation stones of European drama.
Harris replaces the three original plays – Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides – with Agamemnon’s Return, The Bough Breaks and Electra and Her Shadow. At the original Citizens’ production, they were largely split over two nights; here, you can see them in one go.
Much of the focus is switched to the female characters in the drama. Clytemnestra becomes a complex and dominant figure, brilliantly played by Pauline Knowles. Electra (a convincingly haunted Olivia Morgan) becomes the driving force later in the second part, with a psychiatrist played with conviction by Kirsty Stuart taking over in the last section.
This has the effect of diminishing the role of Orestes, who is more of an ineffectual figure, believably played by the versatile Lorn Macdonald. Conversely, Agamemnon is given more life and subtlety, with the formidable George Anton being a compelling figure as the live king and a brooding one as his ghost.
A cleverly used ensemble, notably the excellent George Costigan, give good support to the principal actors. Dominic Hill’s direction is imaginative and clear-sighted, with EJ Boyle’s movement direction and EmmaClaire Brightlyn’s fight direction notably strong.
Agamemnon’s murder at the end of the first part is one of a number of visceral, nightmarish moments in the production. The atmosphere is enhanced greatly by Nikola Kodjabashia’s live music, while Ben Ormerod’s lighting design is marvellous, making highly effective use of discrete patches of light. Be warned, however, that there are several uses of flickering and strobing light.
While all three parts have interest and vitality in themselves, the overall effect is less than the sum of the parts. The sudden lurch into a psychiatric clinic in Electra and Her Shadow is jarring, and the relation to the source more tenuous.
The modernisation has been seamless up till then, and admittedly a more faithful depiction of Aeschylus’s hymn to the nascent Athenian democracy would have been more than odd. However, the resolution here veers dangerously close to psychobabble and sentimentality, while the original’s deus ex machina is replaced with something altogether more bland.
There is no denying the overall impact of the production, however. The lack of cohesion does deny it the truly epic feel it might have achieved, but the acting and staging are top class. As the third of three outstanding works by Zinnie Harris at the official Festival, it demonstrates what an important voice she has become.
Running time 4 hours 35 minutes including one 30 minute and one 20 minute interval
Part of the Edinburgh International Festival
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Tuesday 22 – Sunday 27 August 2017
Daily at 6.00 pm
Book tickets on the Festival website: https://www.eif.co.uk/2017/oresteia