Review: Alcestis

Kyaelim Kwon 30 January 2014

Whether Euripides' Alcestis, first performed in 438BCE in Athens, should be classified as a tragedy or a satire is a live debate. In Helen Charman's modern adoption of Ted Hughes' version of the play, the answer was rather clear.

The prologue by Sam Fairbrother, playing the role of Apollo, is sheerly brilliant. Lighting up a cigarette in England's oldest university playhouse, is almost like a gesture that he controls it all — the fates, death and the fire in between his fingers. The articulate monologue reveals how he has made the fates to accept a substitute: Apollo has granted a concession to Admetos, the 'king' of Britain played by Chris Born, to prolong his life, as long as he finds somebody else to die for him. His wife Alcestis, played by the stunning Sarah Livingstone, accepts this role, well, apparently for love.

So poignant and romantic, isn't it? But Charman, thankfully, is more cynical in adopting Euripides in modern Britain in the 1900s. After Alcestis' death, Admentos himself becomes the victim; life, what he cherished so dearly, suddenly (and only rhetorically) becomes a burden and death the sweet escape. Oh the selfishness of the mankind! (Notice the deliberate use of 'man' instead of 'human'). All the while, the chorus, replaced by three civil servants, faithfully stands by Admentos' side and chronicles his story in the most flattering way.

Towards the end, the play moves from fondling with the notion of fate to faithfulness. What is striking is this: despite the assumed difference of morality of the antiquity, Euripides' insights remain relevant. Can men and their words be trusted? According to Euripides, apparently not.

In brief, the plot is tastefully reconstructed; and what is also notable is the skillful staging. The props, lighting and background music were superb. The most impressive was the stage set that used an elevated floor above the main stage. The actors were fantastic, the play so well rehearsed, and it was difficult to believe that it was a student play. Bravo. Really, this tragedy turned into satire is a must-see.