FringeReview UK 2019
Exchange founder David Furlong’s direction in the black-girt bunker means its small space invites a minimal set, and Ninon Fandre’s one is festooned with a battery of monitors with videos, the work of Guiliana Pulcini and Camile Dufrénoy – from Jason Greenberg’s original. Julien Bernard-Grau’s lighting is mostly glare or glimmer. Sarah Habib’s black costumes fleck occasional red sashes; with a single white dress. The whole is blocked in a mix of ritual and occasional swift verismo in Jennifer Kay’s movement direction. Kevin Rowntree’s fight-direction is drum-tight. The band plays music by A Riot in Heaven – Billy Boguard (guitar), Thomas Broda (drums), Leo Elso (bass).
When there’s trouble, it buzzes back. Exchange Theatre’s calling card, Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies defined this innovative live-band-backed approach to classics, and 12 years on from their foundation, they’ve revived this one.
It’s a wondrous, timely one too. If elements like the garage rock band-Greek tragedy format seem familiar, it’s that others have imitated Exchange Theatre’s aesthetic. There’s another though unique to them, encoded in ‘Exchange’. They perform alternately in French and English.
I know a case of a director seeing an Italian production and realizing how she needed to make a major cast-change back home. It’s striking how much sense gets conveyed in another language and French is partially comprehensible to most of us. Having said that, the night I saw it, the production was in English.
Written in German-occupied Paris in 1943, Sartre’s take on Aeschylus’ Oresteia (essentially the second of the trilogy, The Libation Bearers) depicted collaboration and resistance in code. It passed the German censor, but not the collaborationist French critics. Now its warning, our slide into collaborating with new strutting dictators and far-right populism, seems horribly prescient.
The nominal Flies are what the Furies bring first to the populace of Argos during the days of atonement for the murder of Agamemnon, then they pursue a vengeful brother and sister.
Sartre’s evolving existentialism impacts on this next of tragedies – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides all wrote versions – and he twists it so the end’s far weightier with philosophy and argument. ‘good faith’ or being authentic, or its opposite.
Exchange founder David Furlong’s brooding direction in the black-girt bunker means its small space invites a minimal set, and Ninon Fandre’s one is festooned with a battery of monitors either broadcasting the audience back to themselves or videos of the ruler flecked with millisecond imposition of other faces including Tony Blair’s, the work of Guiliana Pulcini and Camile Dufrénoy – from Jason Greenberg’s original. Julien Bernard-Grau’s lighting is mostly glare or glimmer and at one chilling moment, blackout.
Samy Elkhtib’s Orestes and his Tutor Juliet Dante arrive at Argos, his birthplace from which he was meant to have been taken and killed by soldiers who spared him, over 15 years ago. This after his mother Clytemnestra (Fanny Dulin) has killed her husband Agamemnon with her lover Aegisthus. Termed here a ‘ruffian’, Aegisthus, played by Furlong is in fact a wronged scion of another part of the doomed house of Atreus. Aegisthus deems the anniversary of Agamemnon’s death should be marked by collective remorse, which he leads, though feeling none himself. Love between him and Clytemnestra has along died. Furlong’s strong on worried majesty twitched with prescience. The whole is blocked in a mix of ritual and occasional swift verismo in Jennifer Kay’s movement direction.
And of course the high-energy band, playing punchy music by A Riot in Heaven – Billy Boguard (guitar), Thomas Broda (drums), Leo Elso (bass).
Daughter Electra (Game of Thrones star Meena Rayann) has been a drudging slave of the house since the age of six. Rayann’s journey is crucial. Defiant and sullen she rises to an incandescent defiance in a white dress at the anniversary celebrations when The anonymous (Jonathan Brandt) laves his wheelchair and for blissful moments ances. It’s an exciting moment and Rayann’s character’s subsequent shrinking makes you regret we see less of her thereafter, though she explodes with remorse when nearly dragged off by the Furies.
Sarah Habib’s costumes are otherwise black: officials like Aegisthus (or Christopher Runciman’s High Priest) sport a red flash with an eye and ‘under his eye’ is cheekily used in this translation (surely that’s a recent addition?) and very vulturish furies’ black gowns.
Joining Orestes and the tutor a quixotic knowing figure Raul Fernandes’ urbane Jupiter tells Orestes not to stir things. He prefers the remorse, the suffering of people feeds the gods, we discover. Later he warns Aegisthus to defend himself against Orestes, whose identity he reveals.
Aegisthus’ response is curious indeed. Jupiter believes in different sorts of murder, some pardonable, when kings do them Part of the tension Fernandes brings out beautifully in his confronting Furlong’s Aegisthus is how collusive Jupiter’s authority wants to be with Aegisthus. By refusing to protective himself (though agreeing to obey him), is Aegisthus being authentic? This notion of authentic and inauthentic cuts through the logic of the old myths.
Orestes embodies authenticity or good faith and Elkhatib well embodies Sartre’s direction Orestes should be boyish, fresh-faced, and with the vehemence of adolescence. It’s pretty well what we get too. Orested embodies the terrible revolution of being free. Gods cannot touch him. It’s how after the killing Electra – who objected to Clytemnestra’s death – reneges on her ‘good faith’ in the necessary murders Orestes and initially she ordain. Soraya Spiers, also a disconsolate Woman doubles with fluency like Runciman and Dulin as Furies – pursue her till she begs to relent. Orestes intervenes. Then Jupiter. Orestes defies him. Kevin Rowntree’s fight-direction is drum-tight, here and in the preceding murders. All the cast perform with equal intensity.
The weight of argument is how Fernandes’ disdainful, amused, urbane Jupiter – the most compelling performance – sets out his terms which makes the third act and much of the second half a more deliberative less active affair. The wonder is the production doesn’t drag. The occasional fight helps.
Obedience to law ritual expiation involves in Sartre a sludge of Christo-mythopoeic baggage overlying the original Greek which admits less propitiatory rites. Orestes isn’t vengeful but seeks to free Argos’ people. That’s riskily defiant in Nazi-occupied France: the word ‘liberty’ explodes. By defying Jupiter, refusing remorse and taking responsibility for his murders Orestes accepts his Furies or flies – the cast constantly swat them away.
Orestes even defies Dante’s eloquent Tutor to risk death and confront his baying people out of compassion, to take their imagined sin – the Flies – away with him. Jupiter creates men free. He loses out when a few like Orestes realize this. It’s difficult to recapture that. The end of this is rather muffled in the performative noise, but we get the edge of it.
This is a moody still-energised production, unremitting in its intensity and thus like all Greek tragedy monolithic. There’s no wit and Sartre injects none. Sartre’s still broken it into three modern-shaped acts and there’s two halves in the production here, all of which fractures the remorseless tread of the originals.
That lends a certain saminess in rhythm, in a lack of nuance and shade, given the miracle of performing in two languages at all. Blame Sartre for much of this. And some of Sartre’s motives are a bit occluded here. It’s a heavy exposition – for instance Orestes’ act of compassion towards the people of Argos is half-drowned. But if you value the kind of questions Sartre uniquely reinvests the Greek with – they uniquely revive a moral urgency – then this is essential viewing. There’s nothing like the Exchange’s approach: their bi-lingual virtuosity burns questions. Parallels – and authenticity – you can draw yourself.