This deadly silence with its taste of acid fills our mouths…,” declares the Chorus in Robert Auletta’s update of Aeschylus’ The Persians. The stage is set in the Persian court as the Chorus (Ben Halley Jr.) awaits news of his army’s invasion of Athens: The muezzin’s song has been heard, and the Chorus, in the traditional black robes of the mullah, sits resplendent in the dead of night, recalling past glories. Although his words, intoned in a grand theatrical style, are sometimes hard to catch, a young man in vest and trousers (a second Chorus, played by Joseph Haj) lays out his prayer mat near the front of the stage and kneels toward Mecca, quietly repeating the words of the mullah into a microphone, so that they are transmitted to the audience through speakers placed in the backs of the theatre. There is a second’s disjunction between the two versions, and in that gap it seems that the public and the private come together: Our political senses are awakened as well as our intimate responses. The human and the technological meld in a new synthesis of understanding.
A first chance to grieve
Silence and its opposite, speech, are the twin mantles on which Auletta’s text and director Peter Sellars’s production rest. When the news does come through of the battle’s end–the unforeseen and total devastation of the Persian army–it is communicated in song and an extraordinarily affecting Javanese mime dance by a masked messenger (Martinus Miroto), while the microphoned Chorus again speaks the words. The descriptions of destruction, mutilation and death are distressingly graphic; they are clearly recognizable as everything we never heard from our own leaders during the Gulf War–that war in which we never saw the image of a single Iraqi victim transmitted on our television screens. But they are equally recognizable as what we have witnessed, and have been powerless to prevent, in Bosnia, Somalia and Vietnam. The stage images are simple, sparse and even beautiful, their gruesome detail offset by heightened, poetic language simultaneously whispered into a microphone with the fervency of a prayer. It gives the audience the first chance to grieve, collectively and publicly, for what has gone before, unmourned and unrepented.
At this point in Sellars’s production, some audience members noisily exited the auditorium, outraged (as indeed were some critics) that this young American director had dared to appropriate Aeschylus to his own ends. It’s surprising that they were surprised, with the work coming as it does from the man who set The Marriage of Figaro in Trump Tower and Ajax in front of the Pentagon. But to see only the obvious results of Sellars’s artistic transfiguration of the original (one critic described the director’s work as “political bandwagoning”) is to be oblivious of the way in which this production, paradoxically, conveys the spirit of Aeschylus more faithfully than many versions which obey the letter of the text. To write a play set in the Persian court only eight years after the actual battle of Salamis, after all, was surely as provocative of Aeschylus as this is of Sellars.
There have been several great productions of Greek tragedies in Britain in recent years: Deborah Warner’s searing Electra with Fiona Shaw, Adrian Noble’s weighty Theban Trilogy, Clare Venable’s updated Medea for the Sphinx (formerly Women’s Theatre Group) and Andrei Serban’s Ancient Trilogy, among them. Whatever the considerable merits of these productions, however (and with the exception of Warner’s Electra), only perhaps in Sellars’s Persians has tragedy become more than an excuse for spectacle, instead fulfilling the Greek ideal of theatre as a forum for moral and political discussion and achieving catharsis for the audience.
Dreams of ill-omen
Sellars, with often stunning effect, reaches through the epic, political terrain of the play to a more immediate and human scale. Atossa (Cordelia Gonzalez), wife of the late king Darius and mother of the present king Xerxes, enters in a modern, Western-looking floral dress, saying she has been troubled by dreams of ill-omen. She cannot rest, she complains, and so has the supremely human urge to talk. When the bad news of her army’s defeat comes through, fear and confusion solidify into anger against her late husband. The result is an extraordinary family conference from beyond the grave, with Darius (Howie Seago) rising up from a polythene Underworld and communicating, since he is dead, only in sign language.
In spite of the comical clumsiness of the staging, Atossa’s passionate resentment, mixed with self-doubt and deep regret, are formidable and moving, and her relationship to her dead husband is wholly convincing. Here is an intelligent woman arguing with the man she loved over his culpability, as ruler, for the political situation in which she now finds herself, and as a father for his emotional neglect of their son Xerxes. Yet her insight and honesty are such that she cannot exonerate herself from complicity in the situation: “Where did we go wrong?” she asks. “Where did I go wrong?”
In the final act of the play, Xerxes (John Ortiz) returns in faded battle fatigues bearing the manic energy of the killer he has become. His presence challenges the stately authority of his dead father, and his arrival is marked by a change of pace and rhythm and a brightening of the stage into a dawn of harsh, yellowish light. In contrast to Darius’ grand immobility, Xerxes dashes around the stage, leaping and careening. Atossa’s indulgent maternal joy at seeing again the son she feared was lost is infectious, but ambiguous. Xerxes’ bellicose words echo the proud opening lines of the Chorus, but he speaks of defeat, not victory; the action of the concluding moments is upbeat, but the optimism it suggests is peculiarly tainted.
Throughout the production a complex soundscape gives contrasting textures to different sections of the action. Most noticeable is the inspirational music of the Nubian musician and composer Hamze El Din, which combines traditional Eastern elements with modern Western structures. In the same way that the anachronism of the two Choruses–one steeped in the traditional, the other equipped with a microphone–reconciles the ancient and the modern, so the music provides a spiritual dimension and another level of understanding. Similarly, Sellars’s appropriation of dance forms and mime traditions from all over the world are incorporated into the drama in a way which is not inimical to the ancient Greek traditions of theatre. And the layering of all those elements–visual, musical, verbal–combine powerfully to make The Persians a simultaneously intellectual and emotional experience.
Last summer, iconoclastic director Peter Sellars returned to the non-musical stage for the first time in seven years with a new version of Aeschylus’ The Persians, adapted by Robert Auletta. Critics and audiences were divided when the work was seen at the Salzburg and Edinburgh international summer festivals and the Los Angeles Festival at the Mark Taper Forum, where it received its American premiere in September. Here, two critics (both of whom saw the Edinburgh production) offer opposing views of the director’s radically contemporary take on the first written play in the history of Western theatre.