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Orestes – Guildhall School of Music & Drama

Julia Randall, Jasmine Lee-Jones, Poppy Gilbert, Lydia Fleming, Uri Levy, Declan Baxter © Clive Barda.
Julia Randall, Jasmine Lee-Jones, Poppy Gilbert, Lydia Fleming, Uri Levy, Declan Baxter © Clive Barda.

Charlotte Gwinner’s ambitious undertaking of one of Euripides’ most confounding plays, ORESTES, delivers visually-stunning imagery but struggles to find a fresh dramatic direction for this ancient play.

Billed as a ‘radical re-telling’, Gwinner’s ORESTES offers a radical re-staging but, based on Kenneth McLeish’s 1997 translation, does little to modify the traditional mythos or bring new resonance to its themes in a modern theatrical setting.

We meet Elektra, played with commitment and skill by Mirren Mack, under the arches in an urban wasteland whilst her brother Orestes (Uri Levy) lies collapsed and incoherent on a dilapidated mattress. She begins the play addressing the audience in a classical manner, even if she shares her tale in a Scottish accent and dressed in a vest and jeans whilst perched atop an abandoned sofa.

Simon Daw’s set design is spectacular. He uses the Guildhall’s double-height stage to create a stark horizontal divide between two worlds. In the lower space, he creates a seedy and derelict world – reminiscent of a junkie’s shooting gallery — amongst pillars, that both nod to classical civilisation and the brutalist concrete of motorway overpass construction. In the top half of the space, he is generally more economical with set-dressing and props but creates a world that is both military ramparts and other places of privilege and power. The effect is complementary to the action whilst adding a meditative dimension that echoes Mark Rothko’s canvasses. Christopher Harmon’s lighting design is also outstanding. He has created a distinct ambience within both planes of the set as well as stunningly effective angles and tones to guide us to the time of day in the exterior world. Multi-dimensional and rich, the lighting enables the already impressive scenic design to fulfil its promise and create a visually splendid tableau. Look out for Daw-Harmon collaborations in the future and expect good things.

Whilst these well-built worlds provided an initial metaphoric framing for ORESTES amongst today’s social outcasts living (literally) underneath a militaristic governing elite, this production’s more-or-less standard telling of the story meant that modern parallels started to feel forced or irrelevant from the text. One wonders if Gwinner had been able to draw on the services of a resident dramaturg and was afforded a newer, more interesting translation whether her vision would have been better fulfilled? Unlike some of the other more frequently staged Greek tragedies (such as Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Rex), this work by Euripides is intrinsically more complicated and begins with a great deal of mythology that drives the characters’ actions having already happened off-stage. The producers of the Guildhall’s ORESTES saw fit to include three pages of notes and a family tree to try to help the audience prepare for this work. Whilst it is wonderful to enliven and enhance classical knowledge, a successful production should stand up on its own merits as a meaningful drama without needing a pre-requisite tutorial. One wonders if the exemplary talents of the scenic and lighting designers could have been further employed to help find a device, using Gwinner’s modern parallel vision, to establish the essential tensions and motivations of the characters for the audience? Some of Jamie Lloyd’s work with projections at the Pinter festival come to mind.

With a large cast and chorus there were some stand-out performances. In addition to Mack’s Elektra, Brandon Ashford’s Pylades was particularly impressive and multi-layered with strong stage presence and layered vocal delivery.

Some interesting physical choices were made for the chorus, who were dressed in schoolgirl uniforms worn with ties cropped rebelliously. They enacted various dances and rituals to inconsistent levels of impact. It felt as if the blade-violence of the play was calling to be incorporated as part of the primary metaphor but then changed its mind. Certain harmonising of the chorus was novel and affecting. Unfortunately, other moments translated as ‘the wailing of women’ resembled actual wailing too much and any irony was lost.

Although the lighting showed itself once again to reach outstanding focus and complexity of hues at the end, the directorial choice was the opposite of a ‘radical re-telling’: the standard Deus ex Machina could not have been more conventional. Costumed with a very stagey prop bow, the effect of the gods arriving felt more candy-box than revolutionary. Other than providing a stunning tableau to behold, if this production’s competent and capable performances were to be such literal renderings of Euripides’ drama (using a conventional and potentially somewhat dated translation) why were we transported to the underpass crack-den aesthetics at all?

Gwinner’s ORESTES is visually stunning and dramatically competent but is ultimately a normative telling that struggles to find coherence as part of this most complicated classical story.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

The Spring drama programme concludes with a production of Orestes, a radical reworking of Euripides’ drama in a translation by Kenneth McLeish. Directed by Charlotte Gwinner and designed by Simon Daw the play sees a brother and sister face a death sentence for the murder of their mother. Disenfranchised and without shelter, they hatch a terrible plot to alter their fate.

Guildhall School of Music & Drama


  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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