Theatre in Wales

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Nothing Like It

At National Theatre

National Theatre Wales- the Persians , Cilieni Village, Mynydd Epynt , August 27, 2010
At National Theatre by National Theatre Wales- the Persians Cilieni village can be seen middle distance from the public road that crosses Mynydd Epynt. With its steep-pitched roofs and tall fake-church tower it has a disjointed Mitteleuropa look to it. The first view close-up that “the Persians” audience gets is a wrecked armoured vehicle wedged in a dug-out. The buildings themselves are unadorned breeze block with retractable metal shutters for windows.

For the last night of the National Theatre of Wales’ unique production a thin mist seeped across the plateau. What the audience, dressed in hand-out identikit brown ponchos, lost by way of the famed view of seven counties we gained in strangeness, atmosphere and the chill of the claustrophobia of war.

Stewards lead on foot up a desolate track. The first sight in Mike Pearson’s granite re-imagining of Aeschylus is an antique, flat-fronted, colourless Peugeot van converging from another track. It pumps out martial music. A black Rover 110, once in its native Midlands the talismanic vehicle for executive success, drives with care into our midst. Four suited men alight and move to microphones and a set of portable tannoys.

The chorus’ opening scene is staged as hectoring declamatory bellicose propaganda. Author Kaite O’Reilly has provided an illuminating commentary on the making of her new adaptation. Each age, she discovered from the twenty-three translations she explored, makes a version to mirror its concerns. Her first scene phrasing has a tautness and a glibness of language that has been honed through a government spin machine. “Failure is not in our language.” “Any doubt is traitor to our cause.” “Our boys” are “spiked for adventure”. With Xerxes’ brilliant crossing of his army over the Hellespont into Thrace the prospect for the Greeks is “as futile as fighting a hurricane.”

Her language varies greatly from the two most recent published translations. One is composed in a workaday, sometimes lacklustre prose and the other is by a classicist who naturally seeks to reproduce the rhythms of the iambic pentameter. Kaite O’Reilly is a writer for theatre. As with Tom Paulin doing Euripides earlier this year the six-stress line simply is not our language. In the main her language is delivered in urgent four and five syllable rhythms. Sian Thomas’ Atossa is a crag-like presence which dominates the action. But she has been given a language that is as commanding as her performance.

Metaphors are direct and short. “The bloom of the Persian land is gone.” “These are the thoughts that shroud my mind.” “We are trampled like grass. God’s heel has ground us down.” The text is not afraid to employ words of a period flavour if they fit the rhythm. “Behold” and “thereafter” both occur. Where modernity fits it is used. On the news of defeat the language is simply “It’s confirmed. The report’s accurate.”

The bulk of the production takes place in an open-fronted four-storey building with the audience face-on on hard benches. The view to the side is a five-mile semi-circle of hill and moorland. A second Rover, in cream, brings on the Queen to the accompaniment of trumpets. There is a trend now to an over-technologisation of performance- video in particular- but the amplified sound (the sound design is Mike Beer’s) allows the timbre of her voice to move down to a harsh whisper and up to a mixed screech-growl of pain. Sian Thomas makes that Middle Eastern keening that uses the vibration of the arched back tongue. With her image frequently duplicated on the eight-foot square screen at the building’s apex this is the classical performance of the year so far.

A few years ago an enfant terrible of the Australian theatre presented “the Persians” with added dialogue in the form of news reports from the Gulf. Suggestion is a greatly more powerful aesthetic motor for allegorical meaning than heavy-handedness. When allegory comes in a strident, uni-dimensional form it knocks a play into a narrow channel. Aeschylus is reduced.

Kaite O’Reilly has seeded her text cunningly but lightly. “We live now in a time of terror.” The Queen says “Cruel words for those sons serve overseas.” She asks who is the Greeks’ warlord. The response is that as a force they have no centre. They are an alliance in defence of their homeland. Defeat of the empire on one front is diminution of power on all. In a reprise of the flawed Domino Theory “Who now in Asia will follow Persia’s rule?” she asks. Understatement is always more potent aesthetically than a shout through a loud-hailer.

Towards the close the chorus (Richard Lynch, Richard Huw Morgan, John Rowley, Gerald Tyler) makes its plea to the dead Darius. They move from the building to the grass verge in front of the audience. In their agony of chest-beating, rage and lament Mike Pearson raises their combined voice, movement and gesture into a realm of sublime Dionysiac theatricality.

Paul Rhys’ compelling Darius is presented on the high-up large screen. At a key moment John Hardy’s subtle music comprises just a few spare keyboard notes in perfect counterpoint to the dramatic action.

Richard Harrington’s eloquent Messenger makes his report of military catastrophe via a satellite phone on small monitors. Perhaps there was a practical issue of the actor’s availability. It’s personal taste but his physical presence might have been stronger. “Thracian” sounded once as though it were pronounced “Thrack-ian” rather than rhyming with “nation.” Against the grandeur of the production these are tiny points.

Interestingly, the audience did not stand in acclaim as is the custom in a closed auditorium. Instead the hilltop heard the stamping of feet on the wooden benches. It made for a distinct kind of audience ur-response. Far away, somehow I think Aeschylus would have been smiling.

Mynydd Epynt’s geological substance is Old Red Sandstone. As a formation it is particularly rich in layering and sedimentation. Iron runs throughout. For theatre’s premier explorer of performance archaeologies that makes as good a metaphor as might be for Mike Pearson’s dazzling production.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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