Exchange Theatre return with their production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies, running alternately in French and English at The Bunker Theatre for a limited time. The Flies is a reimagining of the bloody story of Orestes and Electra, who seek revenge for their father’s murder at the hands of their mother and her lover – this production transposes the action to a state riding out an era of political turbulence, coming to terms with its actions and responsibilities.
Seen as a threat, Orestes was abandoned as a baby; Clytemnestra and Aegisthus believe him to be dead, but his sister Electra clings to the hope that he survived and will come back to free her & the city. Followed by Jupiter, the now adult Orestes arrives in the city of his birth after being brought up by some wealthy Athenians – at first he’s not sure what it is that he wants to do (and goes by the name of Philebus), but soon resolves to take the path hoped for by his sister. Electra is treated no better than a slave, only wheeled out as a princess for the yearly ‘ceremony of the dead’, where Aegisthus frees the souls of any angered dead so they can come back to torment the people who wronged them – he invented the whole thing to use fear to keep control over his subjects. This time Electra has had enough of the charade and fights back, only for Jupiter to send a contrary sign just as she starts to win the people over. Some good still comes out of this, however, as Orestes reveals to her his true identity and they plot to kill Aegisthus & Clytemnestra – but things don’t go quite as smoothly as they’d hoped from there on in…
The play was originally written as an allegory for the occupation of France during the Second World War: a time of fear & conflict, true, but also of corruption, collaboration & rebellion. You can sense the influence of this period of history in Ninon Fandre’s design, with the red, black & white colour scheme, as well as hints of George Orwell’s 1984 in the eye symbols and screens everywhere (occasionally used to show live footage, filmed by one or other of the cast on a phone). There’s no doubt that it continues to be a relevant story today, in our state of perpetual political tension. However, the existentialist curveball thrown in by Sartre takes things away from the audience completely once Electra & Orestes start to get overrun by the Furies; it’s made even more difficult to get to grips with when said Furies (male & female) emerge as what I can only describe as toned-down gimps – I’m also not particularly keen on people getting in my face and knocking my things over for no reason. It’s quite a few years out of date in terms of being shocking, and only really serves to add an extra layer of confusion to something that’s already quite baffling.
Personally, something more like DumbWise Theatre’s Electra (also performed at The Bunker) told the same story more eloquently without the descent into incomprehensible weirdness. I think it does suffer slightly from overambition in terms of the dual language schedule – not to the same degree as The Misanthrope in 2017, but in some cases it doesn’t feel like the heart is quite there. Lines simply being spoken and not meant makes it difficult to keep engaged with, especially in the unbearable heat of the first half. Meena Rayann is probably the most convincing as Electra, giving a passionate performance that deserves a better written ending than the one provided by Sartre! Rayann is clearly spoken and her presence breathes life into the play.
The live music (performed by Leo Elso, Billy Boguard & Thomas Broda, written by Mauritian band A Riot In Heaven) is one of the best things about this production, ramping up the energy when it’s most needed and bringing a bit of noise – even if their interaction at the beginning of the second act is a bit cringeworthy… So on the whole, there are some great and some not-so-great things in this production; it may actually be worth seeing both language versions to try and get the whole picture, and possibly gain further understanding of Sartre’s work.
My verdict? An ambitious venture that gets a bit bogged down in Sartre’s existentialism at times – but a good concept and well-incorporated live music.