In August 2010, National Theare Wales took one of Europe's first recorded plays to the heart of the Brecon Beacons. In a collaboration between director Mike Pearson and artist Mike Brookes, and with a new version of the text from writer Kaite O'Reilly, National Theatre Wales' sixth production brought greek tragedy onto the modern day stage.
Set in the heart of the Brecon Beacons, The Persians took audiences onto a mock German village rarely seen by the public.
The Ministry of Defence allowed us access to a unique part of their facility, of which the German village was its centre point.
Audiences were thrust into the elements to experience a once in a lifetime, multimedia retelling of a lost battle and its aftermath.
"Kaite O'Reilly's fine new version is spare, flinty and eloquent and Pearson's superbly imaginative and intense production, at once timeless and modern, has a rare, raw power. This is great theatre... extraordinary, one of the most imaginative, powerful and haunting theatrical events of the year." (The Telegraph, 2010)
"This is a theatrical experience like no other.... chilling, terrifying and timelessly resonant evocation of the rending grief, fury, and devastation of war.....O'Reilly's version is drenched in bloody poetry....Unique and unforgettable." (The Times 2010)
"This is site-specific theatre with a vengeance.... overwhelming... The play itself is extraordinary... superb..." (The Guardian 2010)
by National Theatre Wales
In a new version by: Kaite O'Reilly
Director: Mike Pearson
Conceptual Design: Mike Brookes
Design: Simon Banham
Music: John Hardy
Cast: Rosa Casado, Richard Lynch, Richard Huw Morgan, John Rowley, Rhys Rusbatch, Sian Thomas, Gerald Tyler, featuring Richard Harrington & Paul Rhys
REVIEWS IN FULL
August 17, 2010
"This is a theatrical experience like no other.... chilling, terrifying and timelessly resonant evocation of the rending grief, fury, and devastation of war.....O'Reilly's version is drenched in bloody poetry. A messenger from the front line describes "wave upon wave of meat, bone, bodies...a sea of blood.." Atossa recalls a dream in which she had a grotesque vision of Athens and Persia as two women, yoked to her son's chariot like beasts. While words rain down, the Chorus writhe and howl in agony, all order disintegrating. the spectacle is mesmerising, and at its end, as we stumbled out into the murk, the sound of keening floats uncannily form the empty house into the cold night air. Unique and unforgettable."
August 13, 2010
This is site-specific theatre with a vengeance. High up in the Brecon Beacons, in a mock-up village used by the military as a training-base, National Theatre Wales is recreating the oldest extant play in western drama: Aeschylus's The Persians. The combination of the story and the setting ,with the sun slowly disappearing over the hills, is overwhelming.
The play itself is extraordinary. Produced in 472BC, only eight years after the Persians had been routed at Salamis, it is the only Greek tragedy to be drawn from recent history rather than from legend. Obviously Aeschylus was celebrating Athenian victory. But what is astonishing is his sympathy for the vanquished. Atossa, mother of the defeated Xerxes, views the wreckage of her country with mounting horror. The ghost of Darius, her husband, rises from the grave to announce that grief is man's lot and must be borne. Even "war-lusting" Xerxes himself, guilty of impetuously taking his country to war, is finally seen as an abject object of pity.
What is impressive about Mike Pearson's production, however, is the totality of the experience. We assemble in a square in this deserted military village where the four-strong male chorus is rejoicing in war and announcing "no one can withstand this tsunami of the Persians in full rage." We then march up a hill to sit in front of a four-storey house with the front cut away; and there we see, both in live action and on video, the tragedy enacted. There's a wonderful moment when Atossa arrives in a white car to a blaze of trumpets. But, once she is in the house, a hand-held camera moves in close to watch the distintegration of her hopes as the news from Salamis arrives. And, with typical Pearson invention, that news is conveyed direct by video satellite.
Pearson puts the piece in contemporary clothes but makes no attempt to relate it directly to Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead he and the translator, Kaite O'Reilly, focus on how war destroys the very fabric of people's identity. At the beginning, the chorus praise Xerxes as "fierce as a dragon scaled in gold"; by the end, they are threatening to beat him to death with a hammer. Even Darius, ritually raised from the dead, starts out in Paul Rhys's performance as a gently melancholy ghost, only to turn into a wrathful figure who talks of Xerxes as "a mortal playing God to gods".
Sian Thomas, left, also puts in a tremendous performance as the queen, a woman of fiery splendour reduced to ululating agony as the disasters mount and she cries "this is the peak of my misery". And the four strong chorus, in its turn, descends from arrogant state apparatchiks to figures writhing in torment.
This superb production, with atmospheric music by John Hardy, literally takes one on a journey. And, as one went back down the hill after, strange lamentations emerged from the deserted houses. Shivering slightly, one moved on, still hearing the aftermath of war in one's ears
August 13, 2010
This is extraordinary, one of the most imaginative, powerful and haunting theatrical events of the year.
Aeschylus's tragedy is the earliest surviving play in western literature (472BC), and the only Greek drama that deals with real events rather then mythical characters. It concerns Athens's victory over vastly superior Persian force in the sea battle of Salamis, which took place eight years before the play was first staged and which Aeschylus himself witnessed.
In such circumstances one might have expected a great outburst of patriotic proud. Instead, with extraordinary empathy, Aeschylus focuses on the defeated Persians, waiting at home for news and finally confronted with the terrible realisation that their young King, Xerxes, has led them to shameful defeat.
This rarely performed masterpiece, which taps so powerfully into our present concerns about the West's adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be an event however it was staged.
But the director of this National Theatre of Wales production, Mike Pearson, has achieved an extraordinary coup by staging it in the military village of Cilieni, from which civilians are usually barred. Built during the Cold War, and perched high in the Brecon Beacons, it has a church, houses, a village square. From a distance it looks idyllic. But the breezeblock buildings have never been homes, and there are burnt out tanks in the deserted streets. This deeply creepy place is used to teach troops how to fight in built-up areas, which gives Cilieni its alternative, acronymic name of FIBUA.
The audience is bussed up and disembark in the spookily empty village square where the only sound is birdsong. Then the Chorus of Persian counsellors arrive in an official car, and the grey-suited functionaries hold a rally before us, insisting that victory is inevitable while nevertheless seeming haunted by fear.
We then move on to a three-storey house from which the front walls have been removed, sitting on bleachers to watch what's happening inside. This is the palace of Queen Atossa, a mixture of Evita Peron and Margaret Thatcher in Sian Thomas's tense, wired performance. She is tracked by a TV cameraman, so we can see in close-up her every flicker of emotion as news comes in of the Persians' disastrous defeat. The ghost of the late King Darius is summoned from the underworld, and finally, in thickening dusk, we see Xerxes running across the fields to the home he has betrayed.
The acting is blessed with both simplicity and passion, and as well as Thomas's tour de force, in which she confronts the bitter depths of loss and despair, there is exceptional work from Paul Rhys as the ghostly Darius, seen only on film, and combining anger with a terrible weariness, and Rhys Rusbatch as Xerxes, who bewails his guilt and hubris with tremendous power.
Kaite O'Reilly's fine new version is spare, flinty and eloquent and Pearson's superbly imaginative and intense production, at once timeless and modern, has a rare, raw power. This is great theatre - and a thrilling mystery tour for its audience.
Saturday Guardian Culture
August 14, 2010
Aeschylus's The Persians is the earliest Greek play – and therefore the earliest play in the western tradition – to survive complete. It is also quite atypical of Greek tragedy. The plots of other extant tragedies in the Athenian corpus traffic with the deep mythological past. Aeschylus's own Oresteia, for instance, chooses as its starting point the nostos, the return home, of the victorious general Agamemnon after the siege of Troy. Like most other Greek tragedies the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, selects a fragment of Homer – in this case the king's violent death, as narrated by Menelaus in the Odyssey – and builds a mighty edifice from it. Or take Euripides's The Trojan Women, a "what happened next" continuation that deals with the horrific fate of the female members of Ilium's royal family after the city's overthrow.
The Persians is quite different. First produced in 472BC, its subject is how the news of a crushing and thoroughly unlikely defeat by the Greeks – which took place a mere eight years before the play was premiered – reached the Persian imperial court. Its near-contemporary setting is unique in surviving Greek drama (though we know of other plays, now lost, that explored similar territory: Phrynichus's Phoenician Women of 476BC was also about the Persian defeat, and written from the Persian point of view.) It is perhaps because The Persians seems to stand outside the main stream of Greek tragedy that it is not often performed, though it did (for obvious reasons) attract some companies around the time of the first and second Iraq wars.
This month, the National Theatre of Wales is taking on the tragedy. The location for the production is especially evocative: a replica village in the Brecon Beacons, originally constructed in order to allow postwar British troops to practise tank warfare in anticipation of the Russians rolling into West Germany. Much of the play will take place against the backdrop of a house lacking a front wall – a location that immediately suggests a theatre set and perhaps even a skene (the Greek stage's carved back wall, which doubled as a costume store). Burnt-out tanks are all around. The director, Mike Pearson, says he has resisted direct contemporary equivalences (unlike, say, Peter Sellars, whose 1993 production likened Xerxes to Saddam Hussein). He wants the landscape and the surroundings to "work on" the audience, but not in any baldly literal way. The production uses video and film – the central messenger's speech, describing the Persian defeat at the Battle of Salamis, is "broadcast" as if on a modern 24-hour news channel – but according to Pearson the action eventually slips away from the contemporary into a more ritualised, even mythical form.
The Persian wars – in which a tiny, fragmented and often argumentative coalition of between 30 and 40 Greek city-states, or poleis, fought off invasion by a mighty empire stretching from Turkey to Iran and from Egypt to the Aral Sea – remains one of the most sensational events in world history. This is partly because it was so unlikely, but chiefly because it prepared the ground for the Athenian enlightenment and its great flowering of philosophy and history, of rhetoric and drama and poetry – ways of organising intellectual and public life that are at the core of so much later western thought.
It is difficult, from the perspective of a populous and fragmented 21st-century society, to begin to imagine what it was like to be among the audience of The Persians when it was premiered at the City Dionysia, Athens's great summer festival. The most dramatic section of the play is its extended account of the crucial sea skirmish, which was to be one of the turning points of the war. The Battle of Salamis is named for the island off the coast of Attica to which Athenian noncombatants had been evacuated. Their city itself had been ravaged and burnt to the ground by the invaders, but at Salamis the Athenians, with their new fleet funded by the state silver mines, demonstrated beyond doubt their naval superiority over the easterners (and indeed over their allies). Manning that miraculous Athenian fleet was its citizen body: Athens had no professional army. The oarsmen were ordinary men – artisans, traders, farmers. Every able-bodied male citizen (together amounting to around 30,000) would likely have fought at some point, either on land or at sea, in this desperate attempt to stave off conquest.
Many, possibly most of the inaugural audience for The Persians, therefore, would have actually taken part in the Persian wars (especially if we accept the scholarly near-consensus that very few women would have been present at the play). Aeschylus himself almost certainly fought: his brother died in the war. Imagine a performance of Gregory Burke's Black Watch, told instead from the enemy's perspective, for which the entire audience is composed of Iraq veterans – eyewitnesses to the events described in the play. Even this analogy is inadequate, however: The Persians was performed in a serious civic event, utterly embedded in the ritual, political and military life of the city. (The festival involved religious observances and later, during the Peloponnesian War, the children of those killed in battle would form a parade.) The choregos – similar to an executive producer – was a young aristocrat named Pericles, soon to be the most famous statesman Athens ever produced. The show took place in a city still scarred by its destruction at the hands of the invaders. It is hard to imagine a more loaded context for a performance.
This information throws into relief what is perhaps the central "problem" of the play, one over which much scholarly ink continues to be spilled. Is The Persians a triumphalist exercise, relishing (perhaps understandably) the sweet taste of victory? Or is it a miraculous essay in empathy, inviting the Athenian audience to pity the defeated in their humiliation?
The play proceeds broadly as follows. The setting is the court at Susa, where a chorus of old men and Atossa, the queen mother, wait for news of the battle. Atossa narrates a dream about two women, one in Persian, one in Greek dress. Her son, King Xerxes, attempts to yoke them to the same chariot but the woman in Greek dress resists and breaks free. Atossa is full of foreboding. A messenger arrives, giving a vivid account of events at Salamis. Atossa goes to the tomb of her dead husband, King Darius, and the chorus raise his ghost (the first such apparition in the history of theatre and a direct ancestor of Shakespeare's ghosts in Macbeth and Hamlet). Darius condemns the rash, violent, boastful arrogance of his son. The defeated Xerxes arrives at the court and the play concludes with an extended kommos, or lament, from the king and chorus.
Kaite O'Reilly, the playwright who has adapted The Persians for the National Theatre of Wales, sums up one side of the argument when she says: "It is extraordinary, as an Athenian, to write from the point of view of the defeated – it could have been written from the point of view of the victorious. There is such power and pathos in the play: compassion, generosity, humility." O'Reilly's vision of the play is close to that of the American scholar AJ Podlecki, who has written that the drama would require of its original audience "a nearly total abstraction from the natural stirrings of pride at bringing about the defeat of this bitter enemy. They had almost to forget who they were and to concentrate on the common humanity which they shared with their former enemy." Thomas Harrison, by contrast, argues that the play is inescapably and unpalatably patriotic. "The Persians . . . is not a work with which we can, or should, identify," he writes. "It is not a play that could be performed – to a liberal audience at least – without blatant anachronism or chilling detachment." He places it alongside works such as Mansfield Park and Heart of Darkness, which are unpalatable by way of their inherent colonialism but still capable of holding our interest as works of art.
Some of the most significant work to have been done on The Persians is by Edith Hall, professor of classics and drama at Royal Holloway, University of London. She calls the play "the first unmistakeable file in the archive of Orientalism, the discourse by which the European imagination has dominated Asia ever since by conceptualising its inhabitants as defeated, luxurious, emotional, cruel and always as dangerous." She points out that the play indicates how the enemy was held in the "collective imagination" of the Athenians – a picture quite different from that of Homer's Iliad, where Asians and Greeks are given a largely even-handed treatment. Aeschylus's Persians are not noble, admirable creatures but instead stand for everything the Greeks, according to their own self-image, are not. They drip with wealth where the Greeks are honourably rugged; they are feebly feminine where the Greeks are virile; they are given to extravagant outpourings where the Greeks are emotionally continent.
How, then, might one begin to approach this troubling play in performance today? A start might be to admit that realism is out of the question. The great classicist Gilbert Murray wrote that The Persians was "a direct historical record" and that it was "not only an eyewitness account but by a combatant, and one who, beside his Greek sense of poetry, had also the peculiar Greek power of describing what he saw". That holds true for the play's tour de force – its vivid, fast-moving account of one of history's great battles. But the world occupied by The Persians is a curious one that combines myth and reality. Dense and muscular in its imagery, with an exotic queen, a portentous dream, a distant location and a sinister supernatural event, this is a world hovering somewhere between the poetry of Homer and the rational enquiry of Herodotus, historian of the Persian wars.
As this play trembles between historical and poetic-mythological worlds (worlds which the Greeks of Aeschylus's time may not have differentiated as sharply as we do) so it seems to flit irresolutely, frustratingly in the imagination. At one moment you can bring to mind a noisy, triumphalist Athenian crowd cheering in the theatre as their enemies' loss is so lovingly described. The next moment those Greeks of the imagination are stopped in their tracks by the pathos of Xerxes's grief. We can never recover the feelings provoked by its first staging (which in any case, if modern audiences are anything to go by, are likely to have been multifarious and contradictory). But thankfully, through the imaginative use of an unusual setting deep in Wales, this troubling, masterful play can also become a drama for our time.
August 15, 2010
From a compound dotted with MOD signs, the audience is driven to a village where no one has ever lived. The coach sound system hums, as if something tautened is endlessly reverberating. Sunshine-splashed valleys give way to barren uplands, where only sheep move: apprehension begins to shade curiosity.The opening up of an audience to emotion through the experience of place is a special quality of site-specific theatre. At its best, the interplay between text and setting liberates new meanings, as veterans of Brith Gof, the site-specific company, Mike Pearson (director) and Mike Brookes (conceptual designer) know well. Here, they have scored a coup, placing Aeschylus's great tragedy of war on the edge of the Epynt hills in Cilieni, a mock-up village where today's troops train for urban warfare.
Dismounting from the coach, we walk through empty streets, past a burnt-out tank to a small square where martial music blares. Four men in grey suits (the chorus), harangue us through loudspeakers. We are simultaneously the Persians and the timeless masses listening to our statesmen justify our glorious leader Xerxes's "invincible" expedition. It is a compelling beginning.
We are seated in a stand facing a house without a facade, its open, grey concrete rooms dotted with monitors; a giant screen fills the absent attic; green hills stretch beyond; Simon Banham's design simultaneously suggests past, present and future. As the sun sets, we watch an empire crumble: news of the Greek victory at Salamis reaches the Persian court. The messenger's terrible account of the disaster, reported to camera, flickers in every room. On the big screen the reactions of the Queen, Xerxes's mother, are broadcast in close-up – Sian Thomas's magnificent transitions from relief at her son's delivery to disbelief and despair at the lengthening litany of the dead.
In the rooms below, however, the chorus are reeling and writhing. In grief? In a bizarre mime of battle? It is not clear. They are distracting. And they are distracting again, cowering and cringing, when Xerxes's dead father, Darius, rises in response to their summons and speaks via the screen (admirably delivered by Paul Rhys). John Hardy's music, up to now hauntingly atmospheric, begins to impose. It is as if the director does not trust Aeschylus's words (robustly conveyed in Kaite O'Reilly's version) to hold our attention. The rhythm slackens, which is a shame, because it detracts from the undoubted power of the ending. Xerxes (distraught Rhys Rusbatch) runs towards us, scattering sheep as he stumbles and sprawls across dew-damp grass. The chorus greet him with wails that turn to growls of menace as he howls, "I did it! It was my fault! It was me!" then raise his prostrate body to their shoulders, in a final lament, "In tears we lead you home".
Aeschylus fought the Persians and his play has variously been read as a critique of war, a celebration of victory, a mockery of defeated enemy. The training camp's commander, who praised this production highly, had an alternative view: "We recognise it. We learn from the mistakes."
Photos by Toby Farrow