The Cambridge University team behind Oresteia have achieved many things I would have considered impossible with Aeschylus’ source material. A version of the Oresteia that made me laugh out loud would not normally be a good thing but those behind the reworking of the trilogy into an hour long script clearly know their stuff. Fully aware that Greek Tragedy can occasionally border on farce, they took this element and made it their own whilst ultimately remaining faithful to the spirit of the original.
Set in Las Vegas, this adaptation pits the Trojan War as a rivalry between two casinos. A recently paroled Agamemnon achieves the destruction of Troy with the help of Cassandra. Upon his return home, his wife Clytemnestra greets him with a knife across the neck and his children, Electra and Orestes, swear vengeance on their mother. Bar the setting, this might seem like a relatively straightforward adaptation but this is not so. Electra is brilliantly portrayed as a mildly sociopathic video-gamer whilst Orestes is a witless martial arts student. Rounding off the collection of excellent performances is a nameless old woman irritated at being referred to as ‘Chorus Leader’ and two mismatched watchmen.
The show takes a little while to get going with its opening monologue, which does not hint at any of the more comedic elements to come. Yet once the backstory is relayed, the play truly kicks off and never wavers until the end. A slight gripe of mine would be the scene changes. Frequent blackouts chopped up and slowed down the pacing. The habit of having another character announce the time and setting of each scene like a movie subtitle was also perhaps out of necessity with the compression of the trilogy, if not desirable. Volume was occasionally an issue but not enough to detract from enjoyment and such things will be weeded out as the run goes on.
The ensemble performance is brilliant. Electra deserves special mention for such an amusingly unsympathetic performance, whilst Clytemnestra and Agamemnon form an engaging couple. ‘Chorus Leader’ almost steals the show, proving you don’t need a big name to go far. There was not a weak link in the cast and all are thoroughly entertaining. A brilliant final scene presenting the trial of Orestes as a gameshow hosted by Athena hammers home how on top of their source material those involved in adapting Aeschylus were. It is a rare treat to be able to enjoy this classic story as both tragedy and comedy. Perhaps they are more Euripidean than Aeschylean in their innovation, but are equal to both in their brilliance.