Aeschylus' Libation Bearers
translated by Umberto Albini
directed by Giorgio Pressburger

Euripides' Medea
translated by Maria Grazia Ciani
directed by Mario Missiroli

Performed under the auspices of INDA

at the ancient theater at Syracuse, Sicily
Summer 1996

Reviewed by Catarina Barone
Universita di Padova

Experimentation and tradition, apparent opposites, characterised the 34th cycle of classical performances in Syracuse, the first cycle presided over by Umberto Albini, successor of the late lamented Giusto Monaco. These two different ways of facing the staging of a Greek tragedy justified the choice of a strongly innovative interpretation of Aeschylus' Libation Bearers, and of a more traditional, though not conventional, interpretation of Euripides' Medea.

At the beginning of the Libation Bearers, Giorgio Pressburger's voice points out the interpretive key to his work by reading of some meaningful passages taken from George Steiner's Nel castello del Principe Barbable and Gianbattista Vico's I principi di scienza nuova. He first defines music as the modern substitute for religious emotion, then focuses on the self-destruction of men and nations brought about by their own vices, men and nations who disperse in ashes and like the Phoenix rise again. That is the genesis of the day-after scenario which characterises the set.

At the top of a majestic flight of stone stairs, an enormous disc of mostly broken glass, encased in a sunburst structure of metal, overwhelms the space of the Greek theatre. This is the symbol of the revenge cycle which, with suitable changes, serves as the backdrop of Medea as well. In the Medea the glass is intact and evokes a Mediterranean representation of the sun; in the Libation Bearers, on the other hand, the disc is the symbol of a destroyed civilisation, destroyed like the house of Atreus by crimes. Two turrets at the sides and some carcasses of rusty cars are a tangible sign of the violence mankind inflicts on the environment and complete the picture of desolation. The Inachus River, little bigger than a brook, creeps among the rocks at the base of the disc and is soiled with rubbish.

All around Agamemnon's grave, a bare heap of earth and gravel where Orestes left his footprints and a lock of hair as an offering, there is a group of young women: they are the Libation Bearers who accompany Electra to her father's grave for a funeral rite. Their faces are made up like masks; they wear punk black dresses, with silvered chains and bosses; they sing and dance like rock-music listeners do. It is a neurotic unhappy dance, as they move in a repetitious, obsessive way. They are Trojan prisoners, slaves, and their neurasthenia becomes the symbol of uneasiness, of the existential discomfort of our society, which the young express by listening to a kind of music which communicates 'strong' feelings. It is the lay equivalent of religious ecstasy, in which the rhythm has a ritual importance.

The recorded music to which they intone their litanies and express their different and difficult feelings is composite: a sum of suggestions intertwining each other with unequal cadenza. Philip Glass' melodies and hammering rhythms prevail, while Sakamoto's and Bernard Herman's pieces insinuate themselves among them; the insertion of the theme tune of Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' is particularly remarkable. Aeschylus' words are fatally overwhelmed by the music, though they don't lose their meaning: it is a translation in a different code, in a very eloquent language, the frame in which all the other characters place themselves.

Orestes is an impetuous character, determined to carry out his crime, pitiless in his execution. This coldness contrasts all the more sharply with his final hallucination and the delirium by which he is shaken when he is assaulted by the horror of his deed and the ghosts of the persecuting Erinyes appear to his upset mind. Electra is a frail creature, of tender femininity, lacking in masculine tendencies: she stays at her brother's side in trepidation, more inclined to receive than to give support. There is a strong contrast between her and her mother Clytemnestra, who is a perturbing woman with an ambiguous and sinful charm, schizophrenically struggling between sorrow and sad joy for the death of her son. She is more lover than mother, as underlined by the comparison with the old nurse Cilissa. Yet she is reliable and full of dignity. Even in the face of impending punishment she doesn't deny her love for the incompetent Aegisthus; neither does she abase herself when she uncovers her breast and threatens Orestes with an axe at the same time as she implores her son to spare her life.

This production of the Libation Bearers is a brave one, dense with sense and pregnant meaning, exactly as Umberto Albini, the author of the plain and expressible translation wished it to be. It is not a calligraphic reading of the Greek tragedy, but a deep research into the message left for us two thousand-five hundred years ago by a man Pressburger defines as 'the other'. The coarseness and the violence of the text are thrust before us and then related to our experience. Although some of the director's choices are disconcerting and non-traditional, they leave traces on the spectator's soul and involve him in a true emotion.

The Medea turned out to be easier on the audience. Mario Missiroli set it in a typically Mediterranean landscape, with leafy olive-trees shading the stony and dry land, a set designed not to create differences between the authentic and the rebuilt parts of the Greek theatre. Perfectly in tune with the environment, a chorus of women dressed in black, with black shawls covering their heads, intones doleful songs in Greek , coming out of the undifferentiated earth and spreading along the surrounding spaces up to the flight of stairs. These women do not share the hostility of the ruling class towards the foreign woman and its hatred for her sophia; she represents a different culture and civilisation, as her barbaric dress and ornaments of Eastern fashion emphasize, but not an inferior or evil one. The empathy of the chorus is able to efface both ethnic and cultural differences in the name of solidarity, which is has no room for social and racial prejudices.

Medea is a passionate woman, ready to sacrifice herself and her dearest affections in order to exact dreadful revenge for Jason's betrayal of her. She is a figure of extraordinary dramatic power, a role continually exposed to the dangers of overacting. Valeria Moricone, an actress of deep sensibility who is endowed with uncommon interpretative gifts, is able to embody the character in its wholeness, without adopting shouted tones and unsuitable gestures. She creates for us a boisterous and menacing woman, led to infanticide by overwhelming impulses, even as her sorrow is restrained, furious, more verbal than physical, and wisely measured by a wide range of tonal variations. Her playing is in perfect agreement with that of the chorus, which articulates its interventions clearly, either in alternation or in unison, though without superposition. Their amplification does not flatten the diction but keeps intact the variety of timbres and intensities, embodying the perspicacity and immediacy of Maria Grazia Ciani's fluid translation.

Creon and Jason wear colonial dress, which indicates that they belong to the ruling class; status is so important to the Greek 'hero' that he would not be deprived of it even if it meant breaking an oath. He is cynical and greedy: his motivations are everything but noble, as his persistent references to money and to economic order and social prestige point out. He is a fatuous man who follows a mercantile logic in which there is no heroism left; in the end, overwhelmed by the murder of his children, he will only be able to cry out his sorrow in an unbecoming manner, throwing in vain stones at Medea, who is by that time safe on the chariot of the sun. The final scene of the performance is one of great suggestiveness: the enormous disc made of metal and glass opens at the centre, just like the lens of a camera, dilating and breaking the space. Revealed inside is the golden cart on which Medea appears in all her sinister force and intangibility. There is no more live music played by tambourines and by the sistra of the chorus, but a long, penetrating and electronically produced low 'do', which renders with expressive effectiveness the atmosphere of despair and anguish proper to the epilogue.

Catarina Barone
Universita di Padova