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  • Chris O'Rourke

Na Peirsigh/Persians


Bríd Ní Neachtain agus Caitríona Ní Mhurchú i Na Peirsigh / Persians Le hAeschylus, aistrithe ag Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.

Grianghraf le Ros Kavanagh.

****

Persians by Aeschylus. Europe’s oldest play. Given its pedigree you might expect to have heard more about it. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s Irish language translation Na Peirsigh being, for many, their first encounter with this oft neglected work. In which the arrogant Xerxes, son of deceased Persian king Darius, undertakes a costly attack on Greece. If its story resonated in 472 BC, it can prove a rather dull affair to contemporary ears. Its moral of don’t mess with the Gods or the Greeks told through choral chants and monologues which see leitmotifs repeated long after you got the point. The end result a moody, broody, weighty affair. One which, thanks to Conor Hanratty's stupendous direction, proves to be just that little bit brilliant.

An fhoireann aisteroirí i Na Peirsigh / Persians Le hAeschylus, aistrithe ag Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Grianghraf le Ros Kavanagh.


A clash of text and theatricality, text proves the poor relation that theatre elevates into something compelling. Indeed, you could justifiably call it Hanratty’s Na Peirsigh/Persians as much Ní Dhomhnaill’s. Whose Irish language translation might powerfully evoke suggestions of esoteric incantations, Irish allegedly the oldest European language, but an English translation, seen in surtitles, is stripped of poetry, personality or power. Trading in a directness bordering on the simplistic, it soon becomes vapid and uninteresting. Which Hanratty enlivens by advancing theatre as ritual striving for transformation. Not that Ní Dhomhnaill doesn’t grease the ritual wheel. From a candlelit procession to a chanted litany of names, ritual is given solid grounding. But it’s Hanratty, along with a first rate ensemble and crew, who send it soaring.

An fhoireann aisteroirí i Na Peirsigh / Persians Le hAeschylus, aistrithe ag Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Grianghraf le Ros Kavanagh.


While contemporary productions of Greek theatre often parade in modern militaristic attire, Hanratty resists the temptation to cliche and spares us yet another Nazi styled leader, or frontline solider, who overtly speaks to whatever current world crisis happens to be going on. Setting his sights higher, Hanratty embraces the original’s aspiration towards the universal in the particular and allows Na Peirsigh/Persians speak to all conflicts. Gaza, Ukraine; Hanratty allows you place your own emphasis, along with whatever questions that evokes, subverting the propaganda of the original. Even so, and even when fused with Irish elements, including some haunting Sean Nós singing during the final act, or a Hammer Horror styled summoning of the dead king Darius, it’s always in the service of Aeschylus' original and the conventions that governed it. Maree Kearn’s pared back set evocative of a church or temple steps. Joan O’Clery’s costumes one moment Greek, the next resembling Peig Sayers. Paul Keogan’s lights steeped in the shadows of time sees a masterful use of candles evoking church and pagan rituals. Mel Mercier’s droning composition tapping into dark undercurrents. The chorus’s callings and keenings, their deep exhales, and the phonetics of Ní Dhomhnaill’s Irish language translation reinforcing a sense of it all being as old as time and steeped in mystery, like a Latin mass.

An fhoireann aisteroirí i Na Peirsigh / Persians Le hAeschylus, aistrithe ag Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Grianghraf le Ros Kavanagh.


Told from the perspective of the enemy, Na Peirsigh/Persians explores the shared humanity of the attackers, along with their fears and failings. Hanratty compositionally brilliant in creating flow and movement for his superb cast of Karen Ardiff, Brendan Conroy, Timmy Creed, Naoise Mac Cathmhaoil, Deirdre Molloy, Séamus Moran, Caitríona Ní Mhurchú, Bríd Ní Neachtain, and Marion O’Dwyer. Less characters so much and archetypes, individuals prove stronger when personality is rendered neutral. Naoise Mac Cathmhaoil as the limping, exhausted Xerxes keening his fate as an EveryKing whose arrogance proved fatal, his singing both a hymn and the chanting of a tribal mantra. If Séamus Moran doesn’t always evoke the gravitas of the dead king Darius, Caitríona Ní Mhurchú as his wife Atossa, part queen, part high priestess, part mother, all brilliant, is regally superb.

Caitríona Ní Mhurchú i Na Peirsigh / Persians Le hAeschylus, aistrithe ag Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Grianghraf le Ros Kavanagh.


To say Na Peirsigh/Persians is an accurate reflection of the conventions of Greek theatre would be an exaggeration given its additional Irish influences. But it honours them and gets us closer than many other productions. Marrying Irish language and Irish cultural references with the plays original text and context, Na Peirsigh/Persians elevates and transcends both. True, it’s dark and ponderous, and for many will be little more than a theatrical curiosity. But there’s palpable power at play in this rather superb production which honours both Irish and Greek traditions.


Na Peirsigh/Persians by Aeschylus in an new, Irish language translation by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, runs at The Peacock Stage of the Abbey Theatre as part of the Abbey Theatre's Gregory Project until April 6.


For more information visit The Abbey Theatre


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