Directed by Ollie Harrington
Written and Produced by Rose Goodbody
12th-16th June, 2018
Cassandra has always been one of my favourite figures in Ancient Greek myth. A prophetic priestess who spurned Apollo and was cursed forever to see tragedy before it unfolded, but never to be believed – the romance and pathos of her story is incredibly affecting. I have always felt that she was definitely the most compelling and underutilised character in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, so I strongly approve of Found in Translation Theatre Company’s decision to refocus the story on her and rename it accordingly.
Today, two and a half thousand years after Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon, the concept of a highly gifted woman being punished for refusing to give herself to a man is still sadly relevant in our society. Found in Translation chose a timely moment to produce this play in the wake of #metoo and #timesup, and capitalised on it with not-so-subtle allusions to modern figures (at one point, Paul Irwin’s Agamemnon announces directly to the audience “Make Mycenae great again!”). I loved the reworking of Cassandra’s backstory with Apollo: he may be a god, but his treatment of Cassandra, with all its jealousy, manipulation, and power play, is textbook abusive behaviour and all too human. Hayden Tyler’s Apollo, with his golden good looks and booming deep voice (seriously, I could barely believe at first that it wasn’t digitally augmented), stood in as the archetype of bruised masculine ego, both fearsome in his power and pathetic in his pettiness.
The play’s set design in Blue Elephant’s small space is minimal, and the empty space allowed for some wonderful stage combat/dance choreography. Hanging curtains by the sides of the stage serve both to conceal exits and also to evoke a Grecian feeling, and other than that, the only things on stage are a couple of wine goblets on a small stand, and a long red cloth which is variously and creatively used as a symbol of seduction, victory, holiness, captivity, violence, and pride (most translations of Agamemnon refer to a “purple” cloth, but since there is historical dispute over ancient names for colours, and red works better symbolically today, I think this was an excellent design choice). Costumes were mainly modern, but draped toga-like for the women characters (the Advisor and Watcher were played by women, but effectively served as sexless characters in terms of the play’s gender politics). Other than said costumes, and the Advisor’s clipboard, the play remained very firmly Ancient Greek, which is a shame – I feel that writer Rose Goodbody could have gone a step further in fully transforming this piece and placing it within a modern setting, and cutting even more of the dialogue, which tended Greek-style towards telling not showing. As it is, it sits somewhat awkwardly between being a modern translation and a true adaptation; perhaps “reinterpretation” is the best word.
As mentioned above, I have a long-standing love of Ancient Greek myth and theatre, and was already quite familiar with Agamemnon before entering the theatre last night. This was lucky, as there was a fair amount of assumed knowledge about the mythology, particularly the legend of Troy. I’m not sure if a newcomer to the genre would have followed the plot as well, or caught a number of the relatively oblique references to offstage events and characters. This is perhaps something that needs to be worked on, considering Found in Translation’s mission statement is to “produce work that promotes education in the arts and Classical subjects to those that don’t have easy access.” It’s also a shame that the piece’s complex and sensitive commentary on abusive relationship dynamics and gendered discrimination was obscured by the melodramatic treatment of the play’s plot. The King and Queen, and to a lesser extent the Advisor, were almost cartoonish villains, both in dialogue and acting. Agamemnon’s stupid smirk and Clytemnestra’s rage-filled, twitching eyes did not allow for any exploration of character complexity, and the constant use of shouting to convey anger is always exhausting for both actor and audience. Director Ollie Harrington should have spent more time with these actors, developing layers of subtlety for their characters.
Jade Clulee’s role as the Watcher – the only commoner in the play, and often comic relief – allowed for some more compelling characterisation, and despite some stilted dialogue Clulee managed not only to make the audience chuckle, but also to create a relatable and endearing character. I was always sad to see her leave the stage. However, the standout in this performance was, of course, its lead. Lyna Dubarry as Cassandra was absolutely captivating every moment she spent on stage, in which time she was often addressing the audience directly. She showed us Cassandra’s memories of courtship with Apollo, told stories from her time in Troy, lamented her current situation, prophesied the doom to come, and often simply mused on the helplessness of voiceless, powerless women. Despite Cassandra’s constant apathetic sorrow, Dubarry managed to create a compelling character, pitiful without being pathetic. The soft lilt of her accent (Dubarry is French-Moroccan) serves wonderfully to remind us that Cassandra is a foreigner in Mycenae, isolated from the other characters. Only the Watcher attempts to truly connect with her, in a touching scene which adds a much-needed sense of sweetness and hope to the play.
Overall, Found in Translation’s Cassandra is an ambitious play with some excellent concepts and design, and has great potential to be an engaging and relevant Classics-based text for a modern audience. I would strongly urge the creative team to consider workshopping the dialogue and characterisations further, and to play up the script’s and cast’s strengths: giving voices to the voiceless, and showing us the flawed yet beautiful humanity which drives all tragedy.