Tuesday, 17 May 2016

This Restless Critic

 Photo by Tim Morozzo

This Restless House isn't quite the wholesale feminist revision of The Oresteia that I might have fantasised. Zinnie Harris does a cheeky gender-swap (Orestes loses his place as the matricide to Electra) and allows Clytemnestra a more sympathetic character - helped by Pauline Knowles powerful performance. But Harris is too skilful a playwright to be blatantly ideological. It does stand as 'feminist theatre', if I must, but refuses to condemn the source trilogy explicitly.

Aeschylus' Oresteia is a rare text, managing to be really really good and shamelessly promoting an ideology. It might as well have had the subtitle The Triumph of Patriarchy. Not only does it present a state in a state, because a woman is in charge, it has a lovely denouement, in which the latest ancient Greek science reveals that mothers are not blood relatives to their children. Every so often, somebody claims that the patriarchy started with Christianity or Judaism. When I have finished shouting at them, I suggest that they learn classical Greek. 

Any contemporary interpretation has to deal with the gender politics. It's not enough to sigh that times were different then: The Oresteia offers an argument for male dominance. Even if Agamemnon turns out to be deceitful - for Harris, he gives it all the uxorious loyalty while banging a slave-girl behind Clytemnestra's back - he remains the true king. When he gets stabbed up (the worst scene in Restless House, since it ignores the Greek dictum that violence ought to happen off-stage), it's not domestic violence, but an attack on the notion of kingship.

The brilliance of This Restless House is in the final play (Electra and her Shadow). Having acted out the first and second parts in a mythical time and place that is partially ancient Greece and partially Glasgow, Harris slaps Electra into a psychiatric ward. The image of a woman captured by her past, and banged up in the straps for it, lends relevance and immediacy. Electra becomes the madwoman stuck with the bloody curse of patriarchy, and punished for her rebellion.

By killing her father - and this is a superb switch, akin to that time Euripides made Medea a child-killer (the earlier versions of her myth have the citizens of Corinth doing her kids) - Electra both accepts the obligations of ancient patriarchy and disrupts it. She might be doing the right thing, but a woman taking control: naughty.

In the person of the male psychiatrist, who ultimately holds power over Electra and her shadow (a female former patient turned rising star psychiatrist), Harris pictures soft male power. Insinuating, full of surface compassion, he goads the shadow into insanity, and makes sure that Electra remains 'untreatable'. 

Harris is smart enough (unlike me) to know that an obvious shift from male power to female power won't cut it. Instead, she exposes the bleak oppression that continues, the change in power from priests to doctors and the enervating revelation that the more things change, the more they stay the same... 

No comments :

Post a Comment