REVIEW by Liz Jones

NWR Issue r31


by Kaite O’Reilly

Persians is a drama that comes with a long tradition of translations, adaptations and reworkings. As the oldest surviving verse play in the Western Cannon, its palimpsestuous history can make it a particularly daunting text (or, more accurately, collection of texts) for any translator to approach. Aeschylus’ drama of war and its aftermath also serves as an uncomfortable age-old reminder that, while the nature of conflict changes, we are no closer to finding a peaceful alternative than when the play was written some 2,500 years ago.

This poetic translation, by the playwright and dramaturg Kaite O’Reilly, was originally commissioned for Mike Pearson’s landmark 2010 production for the National Theatre Wales. A site-specific event located in Ministry of Defence land in the Brecon Beacons, in an area normally reserved for military training purposes, it was acclaimed as a visceral and uncompromising production.

Kaite O’Reilly’s powerful, emotionally charged text chimed perfectly with Pearson’s aesthetic vision. Now published in book form, O’Reilly’s play also stands squarely on its own as a notable work of poetry, as well as drama, independent of the essentially performance-led event that spawned it. This was further validated by its winning the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry in 2010.

The play is set during the aftermath of Athens’ victory over Persia at the Battle of Salamis; an event that sent shockwaves throughout the ancient world. The Persians, seen as a seemingly unstoppable force who ‘since ancient times, have ravished the earth’, had suddenly fallen. Their defeat, as surprising for the victorious Athenians as it was devastating for the Persians, signalled the end of an empire.

As an Athenian poet, the obvious choice for Aeschylus – especially as his play was written just eight years after the battle for the Dionysia Festival of 472 BCE – would have been to write a more celebratory drama. (Even the rigours of the tragic genre would have accommodated, say, an account of a fallen Athenian soldier who died before he could have witnessed the surprise victory that followed.) Instead, the soldier-poet chose to reflect on the pain of the defeated.

Like most contemporary playwrights, O’Reilly does not read Ancient Greek. Instead, she approached the play via its eclectic collection of translations, ranging from Victorian formal verse (foreshadowing the end of the British Empire), to modernist interwar texts (antiwar while also anticipating another), to sparse post-dramatic versions (devoid of meaning save any the reader may place upon them). Despite the dizzying variations in literary styles and moral values, each version also reflects the particular anxieties and preoccupations of their age.

O’Reilly consciously positions her work alongside this long succession of creative interpretations, while also bringing to the feast fresh offerings of her own. As in her own previous play, Peeling – a mischievous, feminist adaptation of the Trojan Women – she clearly marks out her own artistic territory. Seeking to add new voices to the play’s millennia-long discourse, she carves out of the traditionally faceless Greek chorus, three new characters (the head of church, the head of military and the queen as head of state).

Also central to this adaptation is the foregrounding of the female experience of war. Through the newly created role of the Queen of Persia, for instance, she gives voice to the often unheard laments of grieving mothers and wives. Like many women affected by war, the queen nurtures those around her, even while grieving herself. Receiving the news that her son has died in battle as she is addressing her subjects, she insists on doing her duty by continuing with her morale-raising speech:

Come, friends, let us speak the old words,
sing the songs of good omen.
Let us raise the dead.

Given the production’s military location, the ‘theatre of war’ itself is strangely absent, taking place as it does offstage. There is no Henry IV rallying his troops, no deposed king in search of his horse, no heroism on the battlefield. Instead we have something more resonant; a reflective mediation on war’s aftermath; a dramatic study of loss, grief and defeat, voiced by a sorrowful chorus:

I feel the weight of the dead upon me.

Under the weight of grief, language itself breaks down into incoherent keening. In an off-key echoing of the Greek declamation ‘To’ (Verily), the word fragments into a broken staccato ‘Otototototoi!’

A haunting tragedy and a salutary reminder that all empires must eventually end, it is hardly surprising that Persians continues to resonate across the centuries. O’Reilly’s translation, written as it was when American troops were withdrawing from Iraq, anticipates the fall of the empire of our age; that of America (and by association, of Western hegemony). Written and performed during ‘a time of terror’, O’Reilly has overlaid Aeschylus’ timeless tragedy with a distinctively contemporary howl of pain.

Liz Jones’ biography of the romantic novelist (and wife of Caradoc Evans), Marguerite Jervis, will be published by Honno later this year. 


previous review: Stowaway: A Levantine Adventure
next review: Hand and Skull


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