My implausibly numbered ticket (for seat L262) suggested that audience and performers alike might well be dwarfed within Birmingham's National Indoor Arena. The reality turns out to be rather less vast, and the same can be said of the textual aspect of Silviu Purcarete's reconstruction of this tetralogy by Aeschylus. The surviving first play in the cycle, The Suppliants, provides not only the skeleton for the evening but much of its flesh as well; lines are added from extant fragments of the other plays, from the Oresteia, and from more recent commentators on the concept of tragedy. However, what would have taken an entire day to perform in 5th century B.C. Athens fits here into a couple of hours.
The gods are more consistently present than in Greek drama: always on stage, not only observing and remarking upon events but repeatedly taking active roles, rather than just appearing ex machina to resolve matters at the close. They also open proceedings with a series of languid cocktail-party aperçus upon the genre itself. More inscrutable even than these deities is the enormous blue-grey cube (shades of 2001) which periodically passes across the stage, disgorging first the elderly Danaos and his 50 daughters upon the shores of Argos – complete with suitcases which are used to construct most of the physical set – then their cousins and pursuers, the 50 sons of Egyptos, intent on incestuous marriage.
Purcarete's production derives its power from the spectacle of these twin swarms onstage, manifesting collective rather than individual consciousness – scarcely ever do single performers emerge from the choric segments in which indivisible group identities are the only ones manifested. In its finest moments this strategy makes a considerable impact, as with the contrast on the wedding eve between the carousing men and the sombre women, resolved to murder their husbands; at its worst a little later, the incessant yelping of the Danaïds as they in turn are hounded to their death is merely wearing.
In general, the production (staged in French with English surtitles) works upon the head rather than the heart. We appreciate intellectually Purcarete's stagecraft in choreographing such whirling hordes of humanity, and the reconstructed work's concerns with issues of compassion between the sexes and between communities (as the citizens of Argos grant asylum to the fleeing Danaïds), but aside from the odd moment such as is mentioned above, little emotional force is generated. This is probably most evident in the final phase of the piece: what would originally have been a bawdy, disrespectful satyr-play, mocking what had gone before, becomes here a vaguely sinister but above all hollow episode in which the sole surviving woman is somehow redeemed by the god Poseidon (whose array of buckets is more bewildering than bathetic).
The programme notes are conspicuously defensive against accusations that Les Danaïdes is a generic spectacle of international-festival theatre only; this is, one suspects, because the team behind it realises that such allegations are not entirely invalid.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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