Orestes: Re-Examined

Southwark Playhouse, 16 September – 3 October 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The downtrodden women of Argos have imprisoned Prince Orestes, murderer of the adulterous Queen Clytaemnestra, and kidnapped the delegates from the Argos Regeneration conference – the audience – to act as his jury. The women are the prosecution; Menelaus, brother to Orestes’ murdered father Agamemnon, is counsel for the defence; Athena, representative of the Global Justice Commission, presides over proceedings; and Orestes’ fate will be determined by a simple majority, in the style of Ancient Greek democracy (except that women get a vote as well).

The major problem with asking the audience to act as jury is that they know it isn’t real. However engaging the production is, however well immersed they become into its world, they still know no one is really going to die as a result of their vote, and so the whole exercise becomes a purely academic one.

Full Tilt address this issue by showing the audience the consequences of their decision in a brief but emotive coda. And while the point still stands that said consequences aren’t real, and no one in the audience is going to endure a lifetime of guilt over them, the vote and the coda act as a live demonstration of themes that are repeated and reinforced throughout the production.

Orestes believed he was carrying out justice when he killed his mother the Queen, but he failed to foresee the injustice his actions would heap upon her subjects. The women believe they are carrying out justice by punishing Orestes for his crime, but they turn to kidnapping and other acts of terror in order to do so. And finally, the audience declares what the majority believe to be just, and is in turn brought face to face with the injustice that decision brings about.

It isn’t an easy decision, either; Full Tilt layer the apparently black-and-white issue of matricide with class and gender issues, so that far from simply passing judgement on Orestes, the audience must also pick sides in much weightier debates. Both sides constantly spout self-righteous dogma, either with victimised vitriol or phony PR smiles, so it’s difficult if not impossible to develop sympathy towards either party’s plight. They also hammer home their arguments with a degree of repetition that reinforces the issues only up to a point, after which its rhetorical value is exhausted and it begins to feel like Chinese water torture.

Of course the audience still won’t put in as much thought as they would if lives really were on the line, but Full Tilt ensure that the issues are sufficiently complex that even making an arbitrary decision requires a modicum of reflection – which forces each audience member to define, in whatever small way, their own idea of justice. While you won’t leave wracked with guilt, you may leave knowing yourself a little better.

Written by Full Tilt after Aeschylus

Crew includes Emma Gersch (director), Alexie Kharibian (designer), Alex Musgrave (lighting), Kitty Randle (movement) and Katherine Hare (composer)

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