This final Scottish production of the 2017 Festival arrived trailing highly positive reviews from its original Glasgow run. There are quite a number of positive aspects to it, but it is, finally, undermined by failures of restraint, and a third part that goes off on a not wholly convincing tangent.
I don't know the original text well enough to know how far Zinnie Harris has taken liberties with the adaptation but the programme note suggests expanded roles for Clytemnestra and Elektra, and there are certainly oddities with the third play which we'll come on to. As in Meet Me at Dawn, Harris demonstrates a capacity for charged, intense scenes – her writing of several of the paired relationships is especially strong – Agamemnon/Clytemnestra in particular, but also Elektra/Orestes.
She is less convincing with some of the minor parts – she overdoes (as so many modern plays do) pointing out that it is all a play via the chorus at the start, including a typically tiresome International/Fringe joke. Harris also has problems with the ending – the regrouping of the members of the House of Atreus is strikingly done, but the broader sequence in which it is enmeshed is too drawn out. As in Meet Me at Dawn, she overdoes the swearing so that it loses impact. Less here, as in other aspects of this show would be more. But the most serious difficulties arise with the third play. Up to this point, despite the modernised language, we just about seem to be in the period of myth – there is the occasional jarring moment between individual word choice and the broader contours of the established world, but on the whole it holds up. But in the third play Harris jerks us firmly into a modern psychiatric hospital, and establishes a completely new character, Elektra's psychiatrist (Audrey) whom, it gradually becomes clear, is going pretty mad herself. There are two problems here. Firstly, it diverts attention not wholly successfully from the central narrative. Secondly, it opens up plot holes – given we also see Audrey's boss and at least one colleague it is really rather difficult to credit that nobody stops Audrey from seeing Elektra which eventually precipitates a catastrophe. I have a suspicion that the real point of this addition is to drive home that this is a world of myth that remains relevant now, but I don't think this adaptation actually needs that – it is, in contrast to the Almeida version, successful in bringing that home more subtly through the first two plays. The psychiatrist strand does provide an effective final image, but the cost is a too often unsatisfying third play.
Director Dominic Hill and Designer Colin Richards, assisted by Ben Ormerod (lighting), Nikola Kodjabashia (sound/composer) and EJ Boyle (movement) set the action in a single modern cavernous warehouse like space – with doors on all sides, into which a certain amount of furniture is periodically introduced. There is an implication of modernisation here, but the text, as already noted sticks more firmly to the original era. This ought to be jarring, but, on the whole it works managing the tricky feat of suggesting a plot of wider resonance without thereby rendering talk of gods, curses and so on unconvincing. There are some very fine, sparely staged scenes. The first meeting between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon in particular has that electricity in physical touch, or the absence of it, which is one of the most powerful things theatre can conjure. There's a similarly strong scene when Elektra and Orestes are arguing about what should be done about their mother and the terrible dead figure of Agamemnon sits on a third chair, his gaze raking them. If only Hill had employed similar subtlety throughout this would have been a much stronger piece. But unfortunately, too often elsewhere he loses impact by cranking everything up to an excessive degree. This includes Agamemnon's death – nudity, blood, far too much unconvincing rolling about, and several of the musical dance interludes – particularly in the third play. There's also an unfortunate tendency to reinforce climactic textual moments with thumping drums – as with the recent Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this actually undermines the power of the moment, suggesting a director who doesn't trust the text enough on its own. There are also occasional basic missteps – when Elektra reports (as it seemed to me dubiously) to Orestes on how Clytemnestra has taken news of her son's death Orestes ought already to know what has taken place having been clearly in earshot of the earlier conversation but the production behaves as if he was not – I wish directors would be more careful about this kind of thing.
Hill also makes a choice about ghosts in this play which he isn't consistent enough about following through and which discards an option which can be more powerful. Basically every time there's a ghost in question they are visible. Firstly, it isn't always delineated with sufficient clarity precisely who on stage can see each ghost, and indeed whether the ghost is a ghost of a particular character or just being another noise producing extra – this muddles Agamemnon's appearances frustratingly at points in the second play. Secondly, the whole behaviour of Iphigenia's ghost in the first play is undermined by a statement of the dead girl near the end of the whole piece – this isn't effective ambiguity, but to my mind just makes it look as if the whole approach has not been thought through with sufficient care. Finally, I suggest that actually it can be far more powerful (like using punchy devices like blood, nudity and swearing with restraint) not to show a ghost so that an audience must question is it really there, or is the character mad – if we see ghosts it's much more difficult to conjure that powerful ambiguity.
The performing ensemble are highly committed. The finest individual performance comes from George Anton as Agamemnon. He understands the vital importance of variety of vocal levels – that a softly spoken line can pack more punch than a shout (there is overall far too much shouting too soon in this show – a familiar contemporary vice). Even though he dies so comparatively early in proceedings, sadly, he continues as an enormously powerful, haunting presence through the second play. Both Olivia Morgan (Elektra) and Lorn Macdonald (Orestes) show promise and provide some powerful moments – but they need to work on shouting less – I suspect they aren't helped by the soundscape here – but if that's the issue then the latter needs toning down – variety of delivery is more critical. I was less convinced by Pauline Knowles's Clytemnestra. As written this is a part with many faces, and Knowles didn't to my mind quite show the necessary versatility. Among the supporting roles there's a fine turn from George Costigan (I think) as Audrey's boss in the final play, and from one of the chorus as another patient and I'd also like to see Kirsty Stuart (Audrey) in a more effectively constructed part.
Overall though, I was glad to have seen this piece despite its flaws and if you have not already purchased a ticket it is worth catching one of the remaining performances.
Postscript: This will be my final piece concerning the 2017 Festival and it seems an appropriate occasion to collect together certain more general questions which I've mentioned, either in posts on the blog or on social media while I've been in Edinburgh.
I commented back in March on the lack of international theatre in the programme and the corresponding dominance of Scottish theatre. The quality of the latter has in fact been higher than I anticipated, but this doesn't mean that there isn't an issue given this is supposed to be an “International” Festival. The EIF has, as far as I can discern, mounted two counters to this. Firstly, that the Scottish commissions were concerned with European/international questions. Secondly, that the Spirit of 76 programme involved more international participants. Neither of these is, in my view, a sufficient answer – in particular in the case of Spirit of 76 the theatre element was announced after booking had already taken place for the rest of the 2017 programme meaning I had no room in my schedule for it (a repeat of the error of staggered booking we have had occasion to criticise before).
Beyond the theatre programme there are some other overall questions. Why should the EIF be putting money into staging shows that could perfectly well be delivered by the Fringe (in which category I would include Meow Meow, Martin Creed and Forced Entertainment)? Is it really the case that only the EIF could stage a gig like PJ Harvey in Edinburgh – if it is not the case, why should such a thing be part of the EIF's remit? I would draw attention to the contrast between the EIF contemporary non-classical programme and the BBC Proms record in that direction. Finally, is it right for the EIF to have stepped back so significantly under Linehan from programming contemporary classical pieces? There has been a significant drop in contrast to the Mills years without the periodic adventurous individual contemporary composer focuses of the MacMaster era, and a return to ghettoisation – in particular lumping supposedly difficult contemporary orchestral work into a single concert.
It frustrates me that there seems to be a disinclination in professional critical circles to ask Fergus Linehan and the International Festival questions like this. The Festival should be as open to debate about its own direction as it is to provoking audiences through presentation of the unfamiliar. Under the present artistic management it is my personal view (as a paying audience member of twenty years who loves the Festival and attended something in virtually every category of the programme this year) that there is not enough of either.