Why must the retelling of the Greek myths always be so inaccessibly grave, the makers of Chorus wondered.
All those dour faces and ringing orations make one a little weary. We’re a generation that feeds off memes, that wants their drama Kardashian-style.
Isn’t it time for an update?
With Chorus, playwright Ang Collins takes the ancient tale of Agamemnon – leader of the Greek forces in the Trojan war, a man whose monumental ego enabled him to do the unthinkable – and rewires it for the contemporary consumer (vaping references and everything).
Here, Agamemnon is no man, but a woman, and a queer one at that. She is the royalty this era worships most: a celebrity, who slays on the stage before throngs of howling fans.
But the tour is over. She’s going home, though she doesn’t plan to stay. It’s a forsaken place filled with the evil she left there: a partner she abandoned; the ghost of the baby that came out of her and roadblocked her freedom and fame with its tiny sick body, before – not too long ago – dying.
No longer protected by the armour of her stage name, tonight, she’s just Sophie. No cult icon, but human, and terrifyingly so. With her influencer girlfriend in tow, we witness her confront the monstrosity that made her who she is – rumours of which bubble up on Reddit boards and in contemptuous voices on talkback radio.
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In theory, this reimagining of the Agamemnon story is compelling – though I can’t quite parse whether it’s toying with the terrible power of the ego, or tastelessly extrapolating post-partum depression. Oddly, it’s the second play at the Old Fitz recently to entertain the notion of infanticide, the first being the excellent Cyprus Avenue.
Perhaps as a story on a page, or with its dialogue deployed differently, the play could claim some degree of excellence. But the way that this piece has been orchestrated and staged is the real tragedy, one that leadenly unfurls.
The dramatic malfunction here lies with the titular chorus. These beings have been modernised, too, embodying the legion of ubiquitous followers who stalk social media, feast on morsels of internet gossip and provide incessant commentary on the supposedly greater beings that walk the earth.
From the very beginning, their constant narration rears up as a tidal wave and flattens the action. There are six that make up the ensemble, and they have been positioned on both sides of the theatre aisles. In an appeal to the cult of technological innovation, two cameras are pointed at them, and project their faces in a ghostly, overlapping huddle on a dim screen behind the main stage.
But in a theatre, you want to see three-dimensional bodies, at least most of the time. I got a crick in my neck from looking left to right repeatedly, as the intentionally Gossip Girl-like dialogue ricocheted above our heads from both sides of the peripheral.
How I wished they would cease. Nothing enacted on the stage – if it was enacted at all – was left to speak for itself. Everything had to be labelled. When the ex – who has shrunk to a man at once brutish and forlorn – smirks, the words “passive aggressive smirk” are intoned from the sidelines.
If a piece of cutlery drops, a voice exclaims “clatters!!” After every second line dialogue is the refrain “he says”, or “she says” – although the timing of this complicated medley wasn’t quite on-pat, leaving at times an awkward racket of cross-talk.
Amid all this is the focus of all this chatter: Agamemnon/Sophie.
She certainly cuts a striking figure in Ella Prince: sinewy, brooding, with a coiled energy inside her awful tracksuit. Yet for at least half the play, all she does is scowl before us on a round obsidian stage. She rarely talks, she barely moves. Even when the chorus says “her feet shuffled”, she doesn’t deign to shuffle her feet. Instead, like a jaguar warming up for tai chi or a boxer preparing to fight a sloth, she slowly, gracefully, dangerously shifts.
When at last two members of the chorus split off to join her as her two lovers (Chemon Theys and Jack Crumlin), it’s a relief. Finally, in a Greek myth, we can witness some drama rather than hear about it as prattle. The pair are fine actors, too.
The cameras are used more experimentally in this second half, if not with an entirely masterful touch. They double the performers, presenting them as both flesh and phantasm; frail and otherworldly. A shower scene adds atmosphere by disgorging a lake of steam, enabling the lighting designer to create some rather majestically doomy moments.
One final blessing is reserved for Eliza Scott, who plays a tomboyish and endearingly awkward chorus member. There’s something wonderfully natural about her, and her comic timing is on point.
Otherwise, something of an ordeal. Alas.
This content is created with the support of City of Sydney