Alcestis

Wed 29th January – Sat 1st February 2014

reviews

Elizabeth Crowdy

at 01:59 on 30th Jan 2014

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Greek drama is undoubtedly a valued part of the Cambridge theatrical scene, and the Lent term production of Euripedes’ Alcestis was firmly rooted in this tradition. Director Helen Charman made a good effort to keep the production modern, and the audience appeared appreciative.

The opening of the play was strong, and Sam Fairbrother as a chain smoking, haphazardly suited Apollo kept us captivated in his role as storyteller. The sparse nature of the staging and the delay before the appearance of Alcestis (Sarah Livingstone) and Admetos (Chris Born) created an atmosphere of suspense, especially as they were almost the sole topic of conversation. The conversation with Death gave us a particularly grim view of the underworld as an office ruled by the many hairpins in death’s bun.

The writing itself seemed a crucial part of this production. Throughout the play, I became aware of how beautifully Ted Hughes writes. The subtle repetitions of “dead, is dead, is dead” and “live, live, live” were picked up on by the cast, and executed with delicacy. The recurring references to the sun, sparks and fire were also not forgotten, and I found myself becoming aware of these small details without actively listening, creating a pleasure for the audience in the actors’ enjoyment of the writing itself.

Despite this, I occasionally felt a coldness to the production. The harsh, white lighting served to intensify the bleakness of the events, but became tiring to watch after a while. The suits and office wear that remained a costume throughout the play were perhaps attempting to avoid overcomplicating things, but they merely served to give the impression of work related dolor for much of the play, despite the fact it was obviously set in a household. Even when Heracles was staggering about the stage in his drunkenness, this slightly bored atmosphere prevailed. However, the half-hearted efforts at recreating the Twelve Labours by the Chorus made for one of my favourite moments. The lion was especially ferocious.

It seemed to have been a tricky procedure following the ADC main show with such a short turn around. Having seen the main show earlier the same night, I noticed that much of the scenery and props were shared by both productions. This perhaps tainted my impression of the play, as I was still imagining the wooden staircase to be a part of Girton, as it had been in Blue Stockings.

This play was a brave attempt at an adaptation of Greek theatre. The acting was good, with Saul Boyer playing a particularly captivating Heracles, and I also had great admiration for the actors who had also been in the main show less than an hour earlier. An enjoyable performance, if a little unrelenting in its darkness.

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Stephen Bick

at 03:07 on 30th Jan 2014

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The Alcock Players’ new production of Euripedes’ Alcestis boasts a stellar cast and a believably modern setting, but a bold interpretative decision significantly changes the message of the play, for the worse.

Ted Hughes’ posthumously published translation of 1999 modernizes the play with his characteristically lithe, suggestive verse. Hughes experienced similar tragedy with the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath, and the hugeness of death is extremely present in his translation. Some nuances of Hughes’ language - interchanging God for gods, references to atoms and nuclear energy – feel somewhat forced, and distract from the more universal story he tells. The same can be said of some of this evening’s production design: while costume, gesture and set are believably modern, some props (cigarettes, ties) seem placed solely in order to give the actors something to do with their hands.

That said, most of the acting was of a very high quality. The chorus in particular deserve special mention. They were consistently engaging without taking away attention from the principle characters, were individuated (Victoria Fell’s awkward flirting with Heracles providing some light relief) and performed their formal role well, questioning and commenting on the events as they unfolded. Admetos, a man torn by grief and his own selfishness behind the façade he puts on to entertain Heracles, was well portrayed by Chris Born, who shows these dual aspects of personality both in body language and speech. The legendary strong-man Heracles, played by Saul Boyer, was endearingly laddish and his final trick communicated real pathos.

My central concern here is with a directorial decision that radically changes the character of Alcestis, and thus the meaning of the play. Alcestis, in this production, appears to resent Admetos, her willingness to die for him seeming to come out of a sense of duty to him and her children rather than from genuine care for him. Thus her final moments are not so much moving as awkward, Admetos’ professions of love and guilt falling on visibly deaf ears. This also completely changes the ending – rather than the one happy ending in all of the Greek tragic corpus, the silent Alcestis remains on stage, looking bitterly to one side as she contemplates her future. While this decision was presumably made to make Alcestis’ character more believable – who could love such a boor as Admetos? – it makes her less impressive than the Alcestis we find in Euripedes and Hughes, and her willingness to offer her life as a sacrifice becomes less plausible. To her credit, Sarah Livingstone acts this (essentially new) role well, saying much with her few lines.

Noticeable in the whole company, except, crucially, Admetos, was an awkwardness about death, and how to help someone mourn. The chorus, cut off from interaction with him, was in places convincingly uncomfortable about the whole situation, and Heracles (once the penny drops) is unable to remain with his friend but must act, not least to escape a social situation he is incapable of commanding. This is a strength of the production – Death is the biggest elephant in any room, and the cast acted beyond their years in their response to it. A pity, then, that Hughes’s final message “Let this give man hope” was belied by Alcestis herself, whose resurrection is supposed to be the source of that hope.

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