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Aeschylus' Agamemnon

at the Playhouse, Oxford, October 16th 2008

Produced in Greek by the University of Oxford Classical Drama Society.


In the Athenian tragic theatre, masks had two practical purposes (without discussing any other possible reasons for masking). As the state allocated three actors (earlier two) to each poet, masks enabled one actor to take two or more parts. Secondly, as the actors on the skene were a long way from the audience, the "character" of a face (let alone facial expressions) would be difficult to discern. The mask conveyed the character (hence the word for mask - prosopon - 'that which goes on the face' - became also the word for character). Hence the audience could immediately register young girl, old prophet and so on, and an actor could also change a mask, as presumably Oedipus did after his blinding. Neither of these criteria apply to a proscenium arch production in a small modern theatre.

Another attested feature, initially puzzling, was that the actors wore padded costumes, and built-up boots. This was because the Athenians, with the same innate sense of proportion that led them to devise entasis on their architectural columns, realised that a masked actor in normal dress looks like a goblin, or a clown. The outsized head makes the body look too small, out of proportion. This was a problem facing the audience at the Playhouse. The main characters wore full-head masks, complete with hair and headdress. This made Clytemnestra look like a doll (reminding me of those dolls we used to make out of a wooden spoon - no surprise that her acting was extraordinarily wooden also), and Agamemnon look like a puny weakling - not helped by the "it aint't half hot mum" shorts, that all the "masculine" characters had to wear. It was hard to be convinced that this was the brutal conqueror of Troy, described by Helen in the Iliad as a head taller than all the other leaders. The masks also muffled their speech - it could be heard, but produced the odd sensation of a voice coming from inside a tunnel somewhere backstage.

The Chorus

The chorus masks were not full heads, they were commedia dell'arte style three-quarter face. All twelve and the leader looked almost identical; expressions varying according to the lighting: from suicidally depressed with front light, to rather sad ancient Britons with huge moustaches when lit from above. But the oversized head factor still applied - five of the chorus danced and were clearly female, and could have added a note of charm and grace. Instead their meaningless posturing and cavorting suggested trolls or something from Tolkien. The parodos was inexplicable - instead of the entering as a body to the marching anapaests, they crept on, individually, bent double darting nervous glances to left and right. Most of the time, they sang as if individuals (occasionally a duet or trio) - making the unique dramatic dissolution of chorus unity when Agamemnon is being murdered behind the door impossible. Nor did they react to anything said by the actors - something that should have been visually telling. But it's not enough for an actor merely to put on a mask, and continue normally. Even the professionals in the famous National Theatre Oresteia in 1985 found unexpected problems. A masked actor uses his whole body; very rarely is a gentle twitch of the head sufficient to convey the emotion which facial expression would have done. The peering around in a semi-crouched posture as if looking for mum in the audience got very tiresome. But I am probably being too harsh on actors who were obviously not professionals, but the fact remains that Athenian actors were professionals, versatile enough to switch in moments from (in Antigone for example) young girl to aged blind seer (Antigone becomes Tiresias).

The spoken word

The production clearly believed in the fine English tradition that speech in a foreign language is easier to understand when spoken s l o w l y and LOUDLY, with a clear pause between each word. Thus actors delivered their lines in a steady expressionless monotone - with little variation of tempo, pitch, volume or tone - the variables that enable actors to communicate emotion, pace, excitement, relief, horror and so on. The chorus, who obscured the poetry in a kind of quasi-monastic chanting, varied only in pitch as the lines alternated between the different voices.

Particularly irritating was the handling of elided syllables. Greek seemed to have acquired a number of words ending in a consonant - henek, Aigisth. Only Cassandra managed anything that sounded as if it might have been actual speech. It's practical I suppose to ignore accents, though sometimes syllables that carry neither accent nor ictus were randomly stressed. The unit of communiction seemed to be the single word rather than the sentence, line, paragraph, or speech. It would have been difficult for a novice to realise that the play is in verse.


I suppose one should always be grateful that dogs can be exhibited occasionally walking on their hind legs. Does just hearing ancient Greek spoken make the effort (mine and theirs) worthwhile? As a veteran of dozens of Bradfields and Oxford and Cambridge Greek plays I must say, on this occasion, no. Unless a production has something to communicate, it is worthless. Aeschylus's Agamemnon must be total theatre, using every theatrical resource available to him (and some he invented specifically for the Oresteia) - I'm not suggesting we need to put Agamemnon in a G W Bush mask, and turn Troy into Iraq, but Aeschylus has much to say about war and leadership and revenge, and the power of the gods, the place of women, relations between the sexes, and law and democracy: nothing of this communicated itself. Where was the outrage at the eagles' feast? The unnatural horror of the wife killing the husband? The suppression of the chorus's dissent by Aegisthus?

What really annoys me, though, is this sort of statement (from an online review) "What it does give is a glimpse of what 5th century BC acting may have been like." No, no, NO! Wooden acting, laboured diction, unimaginative staging, irrelevant dancing are all specific features of this particular uninspired production.