Off Plan

RAW presents 'Off Plan', an adaptation of 'The Oresteia', at Project Arts Centre. Photo: Martin Rottenkolber

RAW presents 'Off Plan', an adaptation of 'The Oresteia', at Project Arts Centre. Photo: Martin Rottenkolber

RAW presents 'Off Plan', an adaptation of 'The Oresteia', at Project Arts Centre. Photo: Martin Rottenkolber

RAW presents 'Off Plan', an adaptation of 'The Oresteia', at Project Arts Centre. Photo: Martin Rottenkolber

It’s often been noted that Irish dramatists seem to have an unusual affinity for Greek tragedy – but perhaps that reputation disguises the fact that the majority of Irish adaptations have been unsuccessful, both artistically and commercially. Marina Carr, for instance, re-imagined Medea as By the Bog of Cats in 1998, giving us one of the best productions of that decade – but her attempt to adapt The Oresteia as Ariel in 2002 was an enormous flop. Likewise, Conall Morrison followed up an amazing 2003 version of Antigone with The Bacchae of Baghdad, a sincere but confusing response to the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, since the early 1980s, there have been more than 25 Irish versions of Greek plays. Yet for every successful adaptation, there have been a great many others that were flawed.

One explanation for that problem is language. Greek drama was intended to be performed on a bare stage by masked actors, so the characters’ speech had to convey a lot of information that today might be communicated with a facial expression or a gesture, or with lighting and set design. As a result, many ‘modern’ Greek tragedies can sound stilted and overblown. Another problem is that such adaptations are often produced to make a simplistic political point. They ought to draw out features from the original, allowing them to resonate in the present, but too often they simply reduce the play’s meaning to a narrowly local context – the obvious example being the overuse of Antigone to comment on the Troubles.

What is most interesting about Simon Doyle’s adaptation of The Oresteia is that it combines the most and least successful characteristics of recent Irish adaptations of Greek tragedies. In Rachel West’s production, the action is relocated to present-day Ireland, with the sack of Troy re-imagined in terms of the development of a housing estate called Trojan Falls. But that local context only rarely intrudes upon what is a largely faithful re-enactment of the story of The Oresteia, in which Clytemnestra (Emma McIvor) kills her husband Agamemnon (Anthony Brophy), but is in turn murdered by her children Electra and Orestes (Mary Murray and Paul Mallon), together with her lover Aegisthus (Gary Murphy). Filling the choric role is a soldier (Alan Howley), while Maebh Cheasty also appears, playing Cassandra and Athena.

In general, all of the characters’ speech has a natural grandeur that allows for the creation of some evocative images – especially at the start of the play, when the audience is directly addressed several times. Also impressive is the interaction of Electra and Orestes in the play’s long second part. As performed by Murray and Mahon, their speech uses a lilting rhythm that conveys the growing intimacy between brother and sister, while adding tension to the development of their plot to kill Clytemnestra. Doyle’s achievement here is quite unusual: he manages to make his characters seem significant without ever making them sound pompous.

Spliced into this story are a number of references to contemporary Ireland. Electra and Orestes seem momentarily to find themselves in the middle of a Martin McDonagh play, when they shift abruptly from a discussion of political assassination to considering the merits of different brands of ice-pop. Likewise, Aegisthus interrupts the action to tell us that his property development wasn’t built on stable foundations – a metaphor so obvious that it could have been delivered in passing, but which is instead conveyed directly to the audience, with Gary Murphy’s face displayed in close-up on a video-screen at the back of the stage. We don’t really need all that reinforcement to understand the message that Ireland’s binge on property development was crass and short-sighted (though as is noted elsewhere on this site, West and Doyle did intend for the play to have broader resonances).

The problem here is that if we want to dramatise a response to Ireland’s property crash, we should probably be staging plays like Juno and the Paycock – a farce (with a tragic conclusion) about living beyond one’s means. But the stupidity of our recent history seems very different from the events of The Oresteia. By blending the dignity and breadth of Greek tragedy with the vulgarity and parochialism of the Celtic Tiger years, Off Plan has a jarring impact. The references to our present – the ice-pops, the concrete, the superficiality – merely tell us what we already know, but do nothing to tell us where we might go from here. The overall effect of this attempt to merge noble past with depressing present is to trivialise those parts of the play that are substantial and meaningful.

Off Plan by RAWThere is a similar, but more successful, attempt to blend jarring styles in the set design by Alyson Cummins and the video design by Martin Rottenkolber. Roughly two-thirds of the Project space is taken up with a suburban bungalow (the design of which is slightly reminiscent of the set for the production of Hedda Gabler by the Schaub├╝hne, which played at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2006). We can see inside through some sliding doors, but much of the interior is invisible to us. That space is instead displayed on a video-screen: Agamemnon’s assassination, for example, is presented in close-up on the screen, though Brophy and McIvor are off-stage at the time. So there’s an interesting exploration of the tension between live performance and videoed re-transmission here – and that exploration parallels intelligently the play’s attempt to consider the tension between real life and the re-transmitted myths that we use to explain the world to ourselves. The unity of this approach to form and content is impressive.

In an interview before the production’s opening, West described Off Plan as the "riskiest thing I’ve ever done". Her willingness to take risks yields many results. The production showcases the strengths of Doyle as a writer, revealing his talent for witty dialogue and poetic speech, even if those two skills don’t always cohere on this occasion. It leads also to some excellent performances, notably from Mary Murray as Electra. And it allows for an exploration of the common ground between ancient Greek culture – which was overwhelmingly oral – and our own culture, which is fast becoming overwhelmingly visual. So West’s desire to innovate is both admirable and provocative: even if the results are confusing and a little unsatisfying, the experiment proves absolutely worthwhile when it’s underway.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Off Plan by Simon Doyle, an adaptation of the Oresteia

10 - 27 February, 2010

Produced by RAW
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Rachel West

Lighting Design: Sarah Jane Shiels

Set Design: Alyson Cummins

Video Design: Martin Rottenkolber

Costume Design: Monica Ennis

Composer: Judith Ring

With: Anthony Brophy, Maebh Cheasty, Alan Howley, Paul Mallon, Emma McIvor, Gary Murphy, and Mary Murray