Issue 10, November 2008
homepage > Molora: An African play based on the Oresteia trilogy

Molora
An African play based
on the Oresteia trilogy

Molora: An African play based on the Oresteia trilogy
 
 

In a South African hall, during a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing, Klytemnestra and Electra, mother and daughter, perpetrator and victim, confront each other in an attempt to come to terms with their violent past.

South African director Yael Farber
South African director Yael Farber

South African director Yael Farber relocated the traumatic experience of apartheid and its legacy through the Greek tragedy of the Oresteia, presenting the play Molora, which was staged at the end of May 2008, at the Dimitris Horn Theatre, Athens, with the support of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation.

 “Molora” means “ash” in Sesotho. In the play, Electra believes that the ashes are those of her brother Orestes’ burnt body, here symbolizing the remains of a ravaged nation. A key element in the play, the haunting song of the Chorus, consisting of Xhosa tribeswomen: “What is guilt? What is memory?” they sing. “What is pain? Things that wake me in the night. By day I stand by what I have done – But at night I dream…

The play was first presented in association with Johannesburg’s Market Theatre at the Oxford Playhouse in June 2007, within the framework of the Onassis Programme for the Performance of Greek Drama at Oxford University.

“It is harrowing almost beyond endurance,” wrote Times reviewer Sam Marlowe. “It is also potently, elementally theatrical, mesmerisingly ritualistic and deeply and uncompromisingly humane. Raw and unflinching, even as it horrifies, it demands attention.”

White Klytemnestra and black Electra, mother and daughter, perpetrator and victim
White Klytemnestra and black Electra, mother and daughter, perpetrator and victim

Based mainly on Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, but also drawing on Sophocles, Farber’s production magnificently relocates the bloody cycle of vengeance in the House of Atreus to the apartheid-era South Africa. The Chorus, who bear witness at the hearing, are played by the Ngqoko Cultural Group, consisting of Xhosa tribeswomen (and one man), who invest the drama with an uncanny soundscape.

Skin drums and bells blend contrapuntally with ululations, wails and groans. There are some chairs and two tables on the stage. At the centre of the stage, there is a grave. Here, Dorothy Ann Gould’s white farmer Klytemnestra, in dirty scarlet dress and dusty rubber boots, confronts her daughter Elektra, played by Jabulile Tshabalala.

Farber shows with terrifying poignancy what thirst for retribution can result in. Klytemnestra, brandishing a pickaxe, lets out a horrifying cry: her husband slain, she is desperate to find Orestes; she horribly tortures her daughter, whom she embraced tightly a few moments ago. Sweating, staggering, growling rather than speaking, she is without mercy, transformed by rage into a human beast. Electra, initially a scared child, then a humiliated yet dignified young woman, gradually begins to turn into what she hates most. “You’ve become me. You choose the curse,” Klytemnestra warns her.

“It’s close to unbearable,” concludes the Times reviewer. “Yet there’s also beauty here, as when Sandile Matsheni’s Orestes is reunited with his sister, or at the achingly hopeful conclusion when ashes fall silently upon the family, their fury perhaps stilled at last. This is art from the gut. I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

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