Most multilingual theatre uses subtitles, but Exchange Theatre has a rather different approach. In all of their productions, some nights are performed in French, the others in English, using a translated script from a lesser-known French play. At a time when London has no less than four productions “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” running at the same time, it’s refreshing to have the opportunity to see an international play I had never heard of before. Jean Paul-Satre’s The Flies seems like a perfect choice.
The reimagining of the Electra myth from Greek mythology, the plot sees siblings Electra (Meena Rayann) and Orestes (Samy Elkhatib) plot to overthrow their mother (Fanny Dulin) and stepfather (David Furlong, who also directs) in Argos. Well, the overthrowing itself takes very little time. Most of the first act is weighed down by a hefty amount of exposition.
Although it isn’t uncommon for Greek tragedies to have this structure, it gives an added pressure to modern productions to ensure the pace doesn’t suffer. Here, the story becomes sluggish and loses most of its source’s epic qualities. Gems from the script shine through, but given the small venue, cast and presumably budget, it feels as though the company are trying to fit an elephant into a matchbox. For example, there is a scene in which an entire town is meant to be seen writhing as they are attacked by flies. It makes for an impressive stage image, but it takes a mighty stretch of the imagination to see anything beyond a half-dozen people swatting at the air.
The production is not without originality; the post-apocalyptic, 1984-esque design is a suitably unsettling update of Argos. However, the on-stage band, A Riot in heaven, is the biggest addition. They provide a gloomy alternative-rock score throughout, leading the tone of the play through the shifts in their music. At times it is effective, though often they become abrasively loud, as though to indicate that something important has been said. It varies between being atmospheric and boring, but it does heighten the otherwise unimpressive dramaturgy.
Elkhatib has his moments but is disappointingly bland. Dulin’s campy delivery and marionette-like movement spoil her character’s potential complexity. Of all the performances, Rayann carries most of her co-stars with her adolescent arrogance and rebellious charm. She is a magnetic stage presence, and watching her descend into madness in the second half is at once enthralling and heart-breaking.
The direction and script have an unusual mix of symbols and ideas from the deeply metaphorical to the down-right clichéd. The High Priest is a slick-haired villain plucked from a cheesy comic book, and some of the dialogue is eye-rollingly contrived. Yet lines like “rot in the stench of repentance – that’s the one hope for salvation” are a beautifully grotesque insight into Satre’s concept of mauvaise foi (bad faith). The show becomes most interesting when the titular flies (an insectile reimagining of Zeus’ Furies) enter the stage. Smeared in make-up, tottering on heels and clad in fishnets, they present a terrifying symbol of doubt, hatred, and insanity. The direction and performances of the flies outshine anything that came before it. The Flies is at its best when it is at its most obscene; it’s just a pity it took so long to get there. Two stars.
Whispers from the Crowd:
"Very powerful! I loved the stage direction, it was very different but at the same time faithful to the play."
"Dark and existential, with an impending sense of doom."