Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Agamemnon by Steven Berkoff
the Spaces @ North Bridge
An impressive physical interpretation of the old master’s revival of yet another Greek classic, performed and directed with a professionalism that belies the cast’s relative youth. If only it wasn’t for those damned sightlines.
Here at FR Towers, we have a theory. In fact, we have several theories but until someone physically unplugs Nicholas Parsons at least one of them will have to remain in the realms of fantasy. However, the theory that is most pertinent to this stirring and polished production of Berkoff’s “Agamemnon” is what FR guru and general grand fromage, Monsieur Levy – if you’ll excuse my French – calls “The Theory Of Contempt”. There are numerous addenda and diagrams to the basic proposition but, put simply, it’s this: contempt is an affliction contracted when a group, product or event becomes so large that the original factors in its success are regarded – and treated – as inconveniences in the pursuit of its own monolithic growth.
Also known as the U2 effect, it’s not a pretty sight, yet spare a thought for those suffering from this freak condition. Despite its malign symptoms, contempt isn’t a conscious, mendacious, state. Indeed, many of its victims are truly unaware that they bear its stigma. However, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be called out on it and held up as a stark warning to those who might otherwise fall foul of this pox. In Edinburgh, the signs are primarily threefold: an obscene inflation in rent prices over the August weeks, forcing audiences to queue outdoors despite available room and the indeterminate weather (Assembly on The Mound, I’m looking at you here), and a laissez-faire attitude to audience sightlines.
Which brings us to MuchMuchMore Theatre’s preentation of Berkoff’s “Agamemnon”. This is not the first time that Berkoff has turned his hand to ancient Greek myths, as those familiar with his retelling of the Oedipus legend in “Greek” will attest. However, this is not the visceral, shocking Berkoff of old. Whilst the tale has more than its share of cruelty and blood-letting (this is after all, a story of revenge in the aftermath of an epic war), the text emphasises Berkoff as a poet of the stage, mixing formal language with modern argot, taking time to tell his story not once but three times while never appearing to repeat himself. It is an aspect of his work I consider to be too-often overlooked in the light of the physicality of his productions. A troupe of some eleven performers relate the curse of the House of Atreus and the fall of Agamemnon with a mixture of physical tableaux, stage fights and choreography while caked in mud and clad in the sort of rags that bring to mind the savage natives of a dimly-remembered Star Trek episode. The action is expertly-staged, meticulously timed and ceaselessly inventive, all the more impressive for the fact that MuchMuchMore Theatre consists solely of Further Education students from Runshaw College in Leyland, Lancashire.
At least, as far as I could tell.
Sat in the fifth row and straining to see, I could make out just fragments of certain sections. The prologue in particular, wherein the curse is established, was played out in so many low, crouched positions that much of the audience took on the appearance of horses under starters’ orders and waiting for the off. Talking to director Andy Newman after the performance, he related how upset he was to find that raisers were not available for the rear two rows of seats no matter how hard anyone looked in the city. For those of you unfamiliar with the North Bridge venue, it has been staging Festival events for at least the last six years. It seems almost beyond comperehension that those in charge were not aware of the potential sightline problems of the studio space. However, The Theory of Contempt makes it more than predictable that nothing was done to remedy them.
This was MuchMuchMore Theatre’s first venture up to Edinburgh, I trust it will not be their last. The tutors at Runshaw College clearly have a vision while the pupils most definitely have talent. If they come up again next year – and I sincerely hope they do – then make every effort to see them. Assuming the venue lets you.