Originally written for The Stage.
“I’m bad at being told what to do,” says Rory Mullarkey with a grin. The playwright, raised in a military family, quickly found that taking orders wasn’t for him when he tried to join the army as a teenager. A few years later, fresh from studying Russian at Cambridge University, a stint at drama school in St Petersburg was similarly short-lived. “My temperament just was not suited to being told what to do for a year.”
The same unruly streak runs through Mullarkey’s plays. Cannibals, the play that made him the youngest writer ever staged in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s main house at 25, contained a whole section written daringly in Russian. His Royal Court debut The Wolf from the Door playfully set violent insurrection in the green and pleasant land of rural England, while Pentabus commission Each Slow Dusk deliberately eschewed accepted First World War narratives.
Avoiding or subverting convention, Mullarkey says, has paid off. “I wrote stuff for a while and sent it off to places, but when people really started to take notice of it and put it on was when I’d abandoned all desire to do anything that was what I thought I was supposed to do.”
The acting might not have stuck, but Mullarkey’s fascination with Russia did. He reels off a long list of Russian authors – Dostoyevsky, Lermontov, Goncharov, Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol – whose influence has seeped into his writing. “I read and re-read those guys until they were in my metabolism, because I loved what they said so much; not only their stories, but also the philosophical weight of the feelings they express.” Learning Russian as a teenager at Manchester Grammar School, he fell in love “with the sounds of it, with the way the words move”.
It was Mullarkey’s Russian that got him his first gig out of university. While performing in his own play on the Edinburgh Fringe, word of the show spread to director Lyndsey Turner – Mullarkey’s “number one living inspiration” – who asked to read the script.
Discovering that Mullarkey could speak Russian, she quickly set him to work on a series of translations for the Royal Court, offering a crucial foot in the door. It was also a steep learning curve.
“Going through 20 plays and every single line, seeing it in one language and making it work as an active line in English – it’s probably the best education I could have asked for in making sure the dialogue I was trying to write was going to be active,” he says.
The Edinburgh Fringe show that got Mullarkey noticed back in 2007 – “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t done that,” he insists – was directed by one Robert Icke. Now, eight years later, both men have found themselves tackling The Oresteia, Aeschylus’s epic trilogy of Greek tragedies – Icke for the Almeida Theatre, Mullarkey for Shakespeare’s Globe.
“I’ve always loved it as a thing because it’s huge and ambitious,” says Mullarkey of the play cycle, adding that “it feels like it’s got this huge, monolithic weight behind it.”
Mullarkey and Icke’s new takes on The Oresteia are just the crest of a huge wave of Ancient Greek drama on British stages. Another Oresteia is coming to Home in Manchester later this year, while the Almeida continues its Greeks season with Bakkhai and Medea, alongside a summer festival of related events. That’s not to mention another new version of Medea at the Gate Theatre, Greek myths for kids at the Unicorn Theatre, and National Theatre Wales’ epic multimedia retelling of The Iliad.
What is it about these ancient narratives that speaks to us so powerfully now? Mullarkey suggests that in an age of globalisation and inconceivably powerful market forces, “our world feels a lot more confusing and abstracted and we feel further away from the decisions which affect our lives”, an experience that Aeschylus’ trilogy timelessly captures.
“It takes all of those things – foreign policy, the economy, discussions about gender and politics as a whole– and boils them down to the thing that is ultimately the most tangible thing of all, which is blood.”
Greek tragedy also offers plenty of scope for reinvention. As Mullarkey puts it: “The texts are these extraordinary stories but ultimately they’re blank canvases for adaptation and production.”
He’s seen Icke’s radical reworking of The Oresteia – “It was like listening to someone else tell you a story you’ve heard before” – but his own adaptation opts for a different tack, focusing instead on the role of the chorus. Rather than worrying about fidelity, Mullarkey suggests that it’s about the theatrical journey of the trilogy.
“The Oresteia takes the audience through such an extraordinary cycle of events,” he says. “That’s what you’ve got to try and get from doing a production of it: you come out of it having been through something.”
Photo: Marc Brenner.