Persae Greenwood Theatre 11 February (KCL Greek Play 2010)

****

I got the picture for once!

I got the picture for once!

This time the two introductory speakers did not overshadow the main event, but were very interesting in their contrasting ways.  Simon Goldhill roamed the stage and sawed the air in the manner of a tragic heavy as he said that Persae was at first sight exceptionally boring, since it consisted largely of exclamations of woe.  He felt the point was that even your average militarised Athenian of antiquity could not watch half an hour or more of his defeated enemy weeping without giving room to subversive thoughts along the lines of Is what we are doing so wonderful? So this was why there had been a sudden spate of performances recently, especially in the USA, now that we were once more at war with the east.  He also made the good point that when the Athenian citizen of antiquity voted for war–which he did with great frequency–he was voting to send himself to war, and not some disaffected working-class youths.

In the contrasting soubrette role of sceptical historian of Ancient Persia, Dr Lindsay Allen wisely decided to skip over the many ways in which Aeschylus’s depiction of the Persian court was complete bollocks in favour of showing some slides to illustrate how cool it was to visit Iran.  And also pointing out that since Xerxes had succeeded to the throne by being born instead of winning it by killing lots of people like his father Darius he felt some issues about his right to rule; and the tombs of the Persian kings were positioned so as to place the dead king in a community with other kings and their family and the peoples of the Persian Empire, so that Darius appearing on his own in Aeschylus’s text was especially poignant.

When the play began, it was really rather wonderful.  The production made sensible use of the chorus, and masks, and Persian-style props and music.

The chorus spoke in unison (or antiphonically on occasion) and also represented the offstage disasters described by Atossa and the messengers.  Someone had conceived the idea–and it was a good one–that the piece was more like a masque than what we would call a play.  The use of melodrama (speech over music) to heighten the effect at critical passages was effective, though I’m sure I don’t approve really.

Among the individual performers–well they were good too–Charlotte Maskell (Atossa) was perhaps not commanding enough, but the scene of her pouring mixing a libation was much more gripping than the similar and allegedly far more dramatic voting scene in the Eumenides the previous night.  As Darius, Petros Bouras-Vallianatos  gave a wholly committed and commanding performance, in somewhat Modern-Greek-style Ancient Greek.  The two messengers of Oliver Mitchell and Jasmine Kirkbride were extremely effective, especially in kicking and beating the chorus as these latter represented vanquished Persians.

As Xerxes, Ben Donaldson pleaded with a now-implacable chorus like a ship tossed against rocks in a storm, in the end seated himself the throne vacant in the centre of the stage

–ἰὴ ἰὴ τρισκάλμοισιν,
ἰὴ ἰή, βάρισιν ὀλόμενοι

–turned his head away in disgust–the lights went down–the curtain came down–the rest was clapping and shouting.

There were some problems of ensemble in the chorus from time to time, and the surtitles were not always very synchronised with the speech.  But this was a fine example of how a student production works when it’s successful–when there’s an idea they can get hold of.  And especial congratulations to twin directors Rosamund Williams and Charlotte Domanski in succeeding so triumphantly with the apparently unstageable.

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