Orestes was an unlucky chap. His mother killed his father, Agamemnon, leaving him an impossible situation: doing the right thing by avenging this murder would mean committing the terrible crime of matricide. Following Apollo’s for guidance, Orestes kills his mother, but is consequently pursed by the terrible avenging Furies, and along with his sister, Electra, is treated as a criminal by the outraged citizens of Mycenae.
Euripedes’ play, Orestes, shows how these unhappy circumstances develop. Orestes’ uncle and aunt, Menelaus and Helen (of ship-launching-face fame), arrive at Mycenae, but ambitious Menelaus refuses to stick up for him. Things get worse when the Mycenaeans sentence Orestes and Electra to death. Angry and desperate, Orestes fights for his life, and against all the odds a divine intervention prevents further bloodshed.
As you would expect from a Greek tragedy this is an intense, powerful examination of the terrible tricks fate can play on mankind, and the conflicting passions and duties that are sometimes impossible to reconcile. Powerful performances (especially Matt Trueman as the tormented hero and Rose Heiney as the impassioned Electra), a really good chorus, and evocative musical interludes make this a moving and compelling performance.
And now for the revelation that might put you off – the whole thing is performed in Ancient Greek! This might sound daunting, but following the surtitles is only slightly more demanding than watching a subtitled film, and you soon get used to it. And watching the play in its original language is an unusual and rewarding experience – the unfamiliar sounds and rhythms add to the sense of otherworldly, lofty grandeur that is part of the pleasure of watching classical tragedy. And if you have some ancient Greek yourself, all the more reason to go and see this Orestes – a performance that marks the 125th anniversary of the first play to be staged in ancient Greek at Oxford, a fine tradition ably continued by a cast who deserve congratulating for this remarkable achievement.