Theatre Review: This Restless House

By Emer O’Toole
National Theatre of Scotland, Citizen’s Theatre, now- 9 September 

This Restless House,  Zinnie Harris’ update of The Oresteia — Aeschylus’ 2500 year old three part drama about the troubled young house of Argos — is available in two parts or, for the brave, as one four hour long epic. Harris’ reworking of the Greek drama to a psychological thriller doesn’t disappoint.

‘Go on then avert your gaze’ warns the chorus at the beginning of This Restless House. It’s a fitting start to this gory Gothic revenge trilogy about the fallout from the Trojan war where Agamemnon (George Anton) is stabbed to death by his knife-weilding wife, Clytemnestra (Pauline Knowles). Their daughter, Electra (Olivia Morgan), witnesses her father’s murder and is compelled to take justice into her own hands.

Harris is fairly faithful to Aeschylus narrative but, unlike the original, the focus is completely on the two key female characters. Harris compares Clytemnestra and Electra’s revenge cycle that follows to mental illness, a neuroticism that infiltrates each new generation, infecting the entire family. To deal with the physiological pressure they have put themselves under, Clytemnestra and Electra develop neurotic habits: one hears flies buzzing around her and the other scratches at itches that aren’t there.

Each of the three separate acts has its own impact. In Part one — Agamemnon’s Return — the king returns, victorious, after 10 years of battle and Clytemnestra, does not offer the hero’s welcome he was hoping for. Part two — The Bough Breaks — shows their two surviving children’s reaction to the events of part one.

Part three — Electra and Her Shadow — strays furthest from the original play with Electra under heavy sedation in a psychiatric ward. Anita Vettesse is superb in the role as a conflicted doctor who Electra drags into her own disjointed world of gods and hauntings. However, the swift jump from the almost timeless setting of the first two parts to a clearly contemporary psychiatric hospital disrupts the plot and structure of the trilogy. Aeschylus’s concluding play, The Eumenides contains supernatural elements and can perhaps be given a 21st-century psychological reading. However, Harris’ final section would work better by itself, separate from the first two parts.

There is excellent performances from the cast of 10 with most of them playing the roles of three characters, as well as playing instruments and dancing. Colin Richmond’s design of the ‘restless house’ itself is sparse but works in the sense that it conveys the neglect and spiritual degradation of the characters.

Despite the negatives, Dominic Hill’s production is a triumph of emotional intensity that questions familial versus personal responsibility and the cyclical nature of revenge.

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