This Restless House
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Until May 14
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Scottish theatre has come over all Greek classical recently. No sooner had Chris Hannan’s stage adaptation of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad opened at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum than the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow and the National Theatre of Scotland were offering us This Restless House, Zinnie Harris’s astonishingly ambitious new version of Aeschylus’s trilogy The Oresteia.
Those who like to follow a classical narrative can do so by seeing the Lyceum’s drama, followed by the Citz’s play cycle. Homer and Hannan end with the fall of Troy to Greek king Agamemnon and his chief warrior Achilles. Aeschylus and Harris pick up the story with Agamemnon’s triumphant return to Athens, where, for 10 bitter years, the queen, Clytemnestra, has been nursing her anguish and rage at her husband’s sacrificing of their young daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods.
Citizens’ artistic director Dominic Hill’s production is set (in parts one and two, at least) in an abstract modern society. Designer Colin Richmond’s bare stage is lined, ineffectively, with what looks like the interior of a working men’s club circa 1975.
However, if the visual concept is not exactly compelling, everything else about the piece – from Harris’s muscular, lyrical script to the universally exceptional cast – marks the trilogy out as a world-class theatre work. Parts one and two, Agamemnon’s Return and The Bough Breaks, are timeless tragedies played out on a grand scale.
The outstanding actor of a magnificent ensemble is Pauline Knowles. Her brilliant, bleakly vengeful Clytemnestra is, as Harris’s beautifully honed narrative demands, every mother whose child has been murdered and every wife who has been betrayed and humiliated.
George Anton’s towering Agamemnon has all the authority, vanity, hubris and doubt required of the victorious king. His impressive return to Athens, Henry V-like, among the ordinary citizens is topped only by his memorable demise; a brutal collision of the two great elements of tragedy, sex and death.
In a notable departure from Aeschylus’s plays, Harris puts the duty of revenge for Agamemnon’s murder not on the prince, Orestes (the fine Lorn MacDonald), but on his sister, Electra (played with convincing inner conflict by Olivia Morgan). The siblings’ torment, as Agamemnon’s malevolent spirit afflicts them, speaks not only to the Ancient Greeks’ belief in capricious, frighteningly human-like gods, but also to latter-day cases of mentally distracted killers who say they were directed by voices in their heads.
This psychological aspect explains the final part of the trilogy, Electra And Her Shadow, in which we find the princess in a modern mental institution. The “shadow” of the play’s title is Audrey (played captivatingly by Anita Vettesse), a patient-turned-psychiatrist, who still struggles with her childhood trauma.
That part three is a powerful piece of writing is beyond question. However, the sudden jump, from the largely abstract to the temporally specific, creates a discombobulating breach in both the tone and the structure of the drama.
The concluding part may feel more like a tangential postscript than a logical denouement, but, with its excellent live music and sound by Nikola Kodjabashia and its drum-tight direction from Hill, This Restless House deserves to be remembered as a brilliant 21st-century exploration of an Ancient classic.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 8, 2016
© Mark Brown