Aeschylus' Oresteia
Translated into Italian by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Directed by Antonio Syxty

January 11-March 27, 1994

Out off Theatre
Via Dupre 4
20100 Milan

Reviewed by Caterina Barone
Dipartimento di Scienze dell'Antichita
Universita di Padova
Fax: 049/8284713

As with his production of Seneca's Thyestes a few seasons ago, Syxty faces the Oresteia without renouncing the profane and erotic setting which suits him. The trilogy is divided into three separate performances which are staged sequentially over a period of three months, January to March. Considerable cuts have overshadowed the deepest meanings of the excellent, literal translation of Pier Paolo Pasolini.

The action in Agamemnon is set in a sort of cinema, among rows of old, black chairs marked with graffiti and swastikas. The actors move among the chairs, everyone but Raffaella Boscola (Clytemnestra) playing more than one character. The sound track consists of realistic sounds, such as the roar of a helicopter, and fascinating, romantic songs. The costumes belong to a degraded, surreal present, in which very different elements are juxtaposed: black punk clothes, sexy dresses, raincoats, and even a kilt. The performers are all young and so is the chorus. A young chorus is not inappropriate to Aeschylus, whose elders are oldest on the inside, without outbursts or ideals.

The tragic happenings seem to upset nobody, because everyone is captured by his own individuality, by the satisfaction of erotic, homo/heterosexual impulses. The general impression is of a decadent, bewildered humanity, without any reference point, always ready to mock everything. Often the members of the chorus fight imaginary wars with imaginary arms, but all their gestures are a parody of the bloody, cruel reality, since thousands of men fell on the Trojan front and even the winners seem to be victims of a hopeless destiny, as the concentration camp scene projected on the wall reminds us.

Though the many different elements may seem strained and unintelligible, they deserve mention for their effectiveness on stage. The muzzles clutching the faces of first one of the choreuts and then Agamemnon as he arrives at Argos and the black mask of Aegisthus recall the disquieting, prophetic film version of George Orwell's '1984', a symbol of the dull violence of our times. One greatly innovative, desecrating element is the characterization of and relationship between Clytemnestra and Cassandra. In Syxty's version of Agamemnon they are not opposites but have a dark carnality in common. Like Clytemnestra, Cassandra is a sexy woman, corrupt and unchaste, whose destiny has been marked first by Apollo's violence and then by Agamemnon's. For this reason the priestess' fillets become undergarments, desperately thrown away, and her death, almost voluptuously embraced, is the end of a tormented existence.

In Choephori the old cinema of Agamemnon is already disarming. There are few chairs left, some of which are piled in the center of the scene and covered by a nylon sheet--Agamemnon's tomb is reduced to an unworthy, common wrapper. The erotic references that are so heavily and troublesomely present in Agamemnon are condensed into a demonstration of the morbid relationship between Electra and Orestes, whose mouths, are covered by muzzles during the climax of the funeral kommos as if to prevent them from assaulting the body. (This is clearly a reference to the cannibalism of 'The Silence of the Lambs', but without an analogous semantic meaningfulness.)

In the first part of the performance it is difficulty to find coherence: although the director is following the interpretive line of the previous tragedy and making use of an upbeat soundtrack (a perfect collage of pieces by Schulz, Sibelius, Ravel, Bartok), the heterogeneous elements which achieved cohesion in Agamemnon now seem to converge in a disorganized sequence where the successful moments are few. Only towards the end does the tragedy gain an interior rhythm, from the sorrowful monologue of the Nurse to the dramatic contrast between Orestes and his mother. Here the director does not indulge in alienating effects or questionable provocations, but skims through the text with a quick, organized, curt cadence culminating in the anguished cry of the matricide to his friend: 'Pylades! What do I do? Can I kill my mother?' After the murder a waltz by Ravel, danced by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, seems to confirm the end of a nightmare for the two diabolic lovers, while the matricide begins his tormented, hallucinating walk toward expiation.

In Eumenides the old cinema has changed its structure: the chairs are piled high both in the background and center stage, and there is a sort of layer of ash on them. The general impression is that of a large white screen on which 'the memory of dreadful deeds' is projected. Orestes has purified himself by means of propitiatory rites, but now he has to submit himself to the judgement of Athena's court, which can free him from the persecutions of the Erinyes. The director conceives them, in an easy, banal characterization, as American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, three women and one man dressed in camouflage, foreheads crowned with olive-drab bands, brandishing black sticks threateningly to the roar of helicopters. Everything is based on physical appearances, on violence and overpowering.

Clytemnestra appears to the Erinyes in a dream, holding a pistol to her temple in a gesture of extreme despair which, once again, recalls the deep, emotive images of memorable movies like 'The Hunter'. Everything contributes to creating a nightmare atmosphere.

Athena and Apollo, with their overbearing beauty, do not bring with them a pacific aura, but underline the cruelty and pitilessness of the fight, under the eyes of the public and of the protagonists themselves who, playing the audience, become themselves a kind of public. The high totem of piled chairs which rises in the center of the set, to which Orestes clings desperately in order to free himself from his persecutors, dominates the characters with its dark threat.

Apart from a certain ingenuousness in direction, the most striking thing about this last play in the Oresteia is the tension that Syxty is able to extract from the text and maintain until the end, concluding his work with great anguish. Orestes' solution is not a true, substantial liberation from guilt, but relies on simple appearance. The solemn, disquieting music by Hindemith which is the background for the final words of Athena, crucified on her blood-red totem and the final, terrible lapidary sentence as rendered by Pasolini ('God becomes reconciled by death') serve to underline the ambiguity of the Oresteia's conclusion, not at all cheering or celebratory.

Caterina Barone

Caterina Barone teaches Classics at the University of Padova.