Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Wednesday Ruminations: Alcestis, or how not to do Tragedy


I had an opportunity to see a play written by Euripides titled Alcestis. Knowing the myth of Heracles and his deeds, I was familiar with the happenings, even though I never got to read the Euripides's tragedy. Insert the excuse of too many books, and not enough time. To tell you the truth, I was intrigued where the tragedy would come from, since knowing the myth, Hercules comes and saves the day. He brings Alcestis back from Underworld.

For those who do not know, Hercules had to do penance for one of his transgressions. He was to do ten labours for Eurystheus, king of Mycenae. The name of his domain may vary in regard to the source you read. As for one of those deeds, Heracles had to bring the horses of Diomedes to Eurystheus. On his way there, he stopped at his friend's house to rest.

The friend, was king of Thessaly, a man called Admetus. As it was, the king's wife died after she volunteered to save her husband from the grasp of death. Her name was Alcestis. As Heracles saw his friend in sorrow, he asked what happened, but in order not to sadden his guest, Admetus lied and said only a woman from the house died. And so, Heracles enjoyed his stay, drank, ate, and had a good time.

Only later did he realise his friend lied to him. And to make things right, Heracles went to where Alcestis was buried and sat in ambush, waiting for Death (Thanatos), to come and claim her soul. In their duel Heracles won, and claimed Alcestis for himself. Death gave up, and let her soul go. Heracles returned to his dear friend with Alcestis and everyone lived happily ever after. Except Heracles, he still had those ten labours to complete for Eurystheus.

As it stands, I was not impressed by the play. Maybe it is because, I in general do not like modernistic approach to classical plays. I will be the first to shout that the setting is not important if the story and characters are strong, but with classical works, I like to see them at least once done in classical setting. Every time I go to theatre there is a modernistic adaptation of Hamlet, modernistic take on Antigone, modernistic attempt at X. For once, I would love to first see the play in its original setting. Then, we can go and experiment.


In the whole play, there were four actors. And that is the Slovenian National Theatre we are talking about. I know the culture department took some heavy cuts on their budget, but this was bordering on ridiculous. The actors knew it as well. They broke the fourth wall at times commenting, how the play "would" look if the X role would be played here. And how this part of the play "should" be played. This break of the fourth wall, was actually entertaining. Which makes it even worse, considering I went to see a tragedy, but got a tragicomedy. Maybe this was the real tragedy of this play...

Through the play, the actors played on the instruments, trying to instill some sort of a concert feeling. Hell, they even opened the play with "Welcome to the concert". One thing, that does not suit tragedy, at least in a way this play was presented is sort of improvised jazz when you want to stir up the feelings of audience. It cheapens the experience and dilutes the message.

I enjoyed greatly how they handled the arguing between Admetus and his father at the grave of Alcestis. They were not waiting and making turns. They did not sound reasonable. They talked over each other. Each arguing something entirely different than the other.

The play got progressively better as they got further and further from the musical intermezzos. It is to say, that a sort of irony could be seen from the way characters looked. Heracles was not strong and handsome. He looked like a clash between a backpacker, hobo, and a new age hippy. He was old, with a belly and no muscles to be seen anywhere. With long hair, but the most of his head bald, wearing a T-shirt with the picture of comic's Superman, it was a perfect blend.

The way how actors did not even try to shed tears, when it was the act of mourning, but instead opted to draw one blue tear under an eye with a crayon of sorts. It was all done in this tone of irony, as if they are mocking someone. But the one feeling mocked at the end, was my wallet. The money spent on the ticket was far from the worth of the performance.


At the end, even the tragedy was a mockery. Heracles brings Alcestis back to Admetus. Heracles said to his friend half in jest that he won the woman in a wrestling competition, and he wanted him to hold her while he goes and gets the horses of Diomedes. While Alcestis was on her deathbed, dying for her husband, Admetus promised not to take another woman as long as he lives. He promised he would never marry again. He promised he would be a mother and father to his children.

And here he was, with a woman, whose face was covered. He took her right there, not even able to wait for his dead wife's warm body to get cold. She remained silent. And as the act was done, she revealed herself. The actress at this point broke the fourth wall, and said: "the real comedy starts in three days". The three days were, when Alcestis could speak again, implying the age old wisdom that, Hell hath no fury like the woman scorned.

The tragedy of Alcestis is in her belief in her husband. She believed he would hold his promises, and here he was ready to dishonour himself, and his family, only to be in the embrace of a good looking woman. He was ready to throw all his promises away, just for sex. The tragedy is in the betrayal of Alcestis. The realisation, that for all his tears and sadness, he was not worth her sacrifice. Realisation, that his parents knew too well, why they would not give their lives for him.

Also, the realisation that if the National Theatre ever wants to see my money again, they better step up their game. If the play is tragedy, I want tragedy. I want catharsis, I want that purge of all the feeling until I am man made anew through the art I am witnessing. And I know they are capable of delivering good plays. It is just this one that really drives crazy. And this year's repertoire is really appealing.

Caligula by Camus, Medea by Euripides, Citizen Kane by Wells. Those plays interest me, and it would be most heart-breaking to see them executed in poor fashion. It would be unforgivable. I am ready to give them a second chance. To accept the Alcestis was just an experiment, and that the future plays will be superb. One might as well hope at this point. It is not like there is anything else left. Because if they fail to deliver with Citizen Kane, well I am through with them.

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