Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Waiting for Orestes:Electra, King's Theatre, Edinburgh (SCOT)

I found out about the Waiting for Orestes – Electra from the Edinburgh International Festival website ( http://www.eif.co.uk/electra) and thought it would be a treat.  This performance, directed by Suzuki is based partly on the Hugo von Hofmannsthal libretto for the Richard Strauss opera, Elektra (as well as the play by Euripedes).  In the mid 1970s, I went to see Ariadne auf Naxos at the Kings Theatre in Edinburgh. Hofmannsthal wrote most of the libretti for Richard Strauss with some important assistance from Max Reinhardt.  My interest in the Strauss Operas went into overdrive when I had a student exchange in Munich in 1977, seeing 6 of his operas within 4 months.  Before I lost my sight I had gone to several performances of Elektra and have the image of Birgit Nilsson on the cover of the box set of the Solti recordings fixed in my mind. 

Being visually impaired can present an obstacle to some enjoyment of the performing arts.  However, recent developments in technology and blindness awareness have encouraged more people with sight loss to engage with drama in all its forms.  Audio description can be helpful though it means that one is listening to two live performances at once.  Also, sometimes these can be too subjective and while I enjoy some audio described performances I also enjoy being immersed in a drama.  A Touch Tour can help in understanding the set, costumes and with actors present, an idea of who is talking. 

Since losing my sight, I have gone to several Greek tragedies including a version of Electra at the Kilburn Tricycle in London.  A blog post on my experience of both a touch tour and an audio described performance of Antigone by Sophocles in the National Theatre can be found on: http://profwhitestick.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/antigone-national-theatre-london.html

Having checked out some access information at a Edinburgh theatre box office in person, I thought I would enjoy this Suzuki directed performance which is going to be in Japanese/Korean - which I don’t know - and with supertitles - which I can’t read! 

However, I am familiar with the context and knowing that Electra should be on stage all the time, ought to be able to follow the story.  Euripides introduced more speaking roles on stage.  As a result, his works are more complex than those of Aeschylos or Sophocles, and tend to reflect more internal Greek politics at the time.  Hofmannstahl, on the other hand, is reputed to have steered Strauss away from Wagnerian themes in his operas, which tend to have more classical settings such as Ariadne auf Naxos. 

The combination of the two should be interesting and I am really looking forward to this performance, which will be eclectic for me, no matter what.  Schweigen und tanzen.

The day of the performance - 12th August 2012

On the day itself, I was still enjoying Barry McGovern’s performance of the Samuel Beckett Watt piece.  The language flowed so effortlessly and I was too over-confident about being immersed in a stream of words.  We called in at the Edinburgh College of Art for a performance of Peer Gynt.  This was more of an exegesis of Peer Gynt with the odd piece of Norwegian illustrating the sounds and melodies of a foreign language. 

Later at the King’s Theatre, however, I ought to have paid more attention to the programme notes for Waiting for Orestes:Electra.  I have shown my bewilderment and enjoyment of the performance with the Suzuki production with Electra speaking Korean, though mainly expressing her obsession with revenge through dance.  The rest of the cast spoke Japanese and though I found it very difficult to identify characters, I decided to enjoy the performance for what it was. 

In a performance of Electra which I had seen in London, the person playing Electra had a bit part in the BBC Radio 4 long-running radio soap, The Archers, and I had recognised her voice through that.  Not knowing any of the Japanese actors or the Korean ones for that matter, made such recognition impossible, though I would at least have known who was speaking from the outset. 

Visualisation of Electra - from left Electra, Clytemnestra, Chrysothemis and Orestis
after Euripides, after Hofmannstahl, after Bauhaus

My specific review of the performance now follows.  This is also on the Edinburgh International Festival blog on: http://www.eif.co.uk/news/waiting-orestes-electra-festival-blogger-review 

As the London Olympics were drawing to a close, I attended Waiting for Orestes: Electra.  The performance took place in the newly refurbished Kings Theatre, where I saw my first Richard Strauss opera- Ariadne auf Naxos in the mid 1970s (I was sighted then).  This opera uses a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Suzuki has based his production after Euripides and Hofmannsthal.  Suzuki is well known for vocal gymnastics and on this occasion there should have been medals awarded. 

The production is performed in Korean and Japanese with supertitles.  This was going to present a challenge for me as I am visually impaired and so unable to read. 

Suzuki has the chorus enter on wheelchairs as a parados in a classical Greek tragedy.  There is a lot of stomping with sounds reaching fever pitch and such rapid movement, I thought the wheelchairs were about to fly out of orbit.  Some audio clues presented the back story and I could tell from the percussion that Agamemnon had been “done in”.  At one point, I thought I could detect the Agamemnon motif from Strauss’s opera Elektra. 

This production shows the driven nature of Electra in wanting revenge, but Suzuki’s idea of Electra is effectively a silent role, locked in a mental hospital, and who expresses her obsession and need for revenge through dance and some vocal athletics (in Korean, as it turned out).  This made identifying the dialogue and distinguishing the character from other protagonists as well as the chorus difficult – though I managed to work out when Clytemnestra was raging through the constant spitting and declamatory sounds.  I could also detect the usually wimpish and soppy character of Chrysothemis, but my peripheral vision could only detect Electra with her movements, as the others are in the same wheelchair position.  (It turned out that Clytemnestra had in fact stood up and stepped onto the wheelchair at one point.)

I was getting momentarily confused with the appearance of what appeared to be a sword, thinking this was Orestes, but it turned out to be Clytemnestra brandishing a staff.  Eventually, I succumbed to the music, sounds and the movement I could detect, and knew when Orestes had done Clytemnestra in, though wasn’t aware whether this had been done off stage or not.  (It turned out that Suzuki had followed Greek tradition and the killing was done off-stage.)  At the end I managed to sense the “schweigen und tanzen” moment of Electra from her change of angular momentum. 

The music is stunning and the percussion with drums, gongs and some type of xylophone was a major part of the story.  There is no ‘21st century Western’ subtlety in Greek tragedy, so the action is very “in your face”.  Perhaps Suzuki, in his own way, has brought 5th century BC Athens to a 21st century Athens-of-the north audience.