Aeschylus’s The Persians is commonly described as “the world’s oldest surviving play”. Here we have a group of councilors and wives of warriors, waiting anxiously for news about a great empire’s foreign adventure against a minor border enemy – a pesky little bunch of Hellenes that the ruler was sure could be crushed once and for all, thus avenging a surprise defeat suffered by his father.
This script from 472BC could, in 2006, hardly be more topical. (It is set even in the same part of the world as George Bush’s Iraq adventure.) Yet George Eugeniou’s production at the Theatro Technis in Camden, North London, resists the temptation to draw direct parallels.
Instead here we have a classically presented production, with slow, stylised dance, simple but highly effective music (by Gillian Spragg) and many lines of chanting choruses. It reminded me of the recent Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices production of Metamorphoses & Elektra.
On alternating nights, as on the press opening last night, Queen Atossa is played by Tania Batzouglou, speaking the original ancient Greek. This is one of those choices that might badly backfire, but instead it works beautifully. I can’t speak for the quality of the Ancient Greek, but Batzouglou sounds like someone speaking in her native tongue, and the exaggerated gestures and gushing emotion mean there’s never any doubt about her meaning and feelings.
The lighting, always dim and dusky, spooky and foreboding, helps to make this form of acting — the beating of breasting, the tearing of hair, the prostration with grief – seem right and proper; it is not too much, not too fake, as it might so easily seem.
Andrew Colley as the ghost of King Darius, summoned by his people’s grief and fear at the damage wrought by his impetuous son, is balanced and stately, and Jasper Soffer as Xerxes manages a fine job of an impetuous young squib, even if it is hard to see him as a commander of a grand army.
Felipe Cura’s character of the messenger, who delivers the devastating news of Salamis, is muscular and powerful, but the one character who, when we need to hear him clearly, sometimes gets too caught up in the drama, so that his lines are swallowed and missed in a flurry of flung limbs. The chorus too has problems occasionally with delivering long sequences of lines together, although as the production beds down this should improve.
Overall though, this is a fine, lively production of a classic, of a standard considerably higher than you might expect to find on the fringe. It will leave you wailing, not as does the chorus, “the fate of Persia”, but the fate of a race of beings still making the same mistakes two millennia later.
The production continues until June 3; tickets £10/£5; box office 0207-3876617. Links: Theatro Technis; the play (translated by Robert Potter).