He might recently have been haunting the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House, but playwright Martin Crimp seems more at home outside Britain. His translations of French classics are justly celebrated, while certain German theatres treat him almost like a house dramatist. His latest appearance at the Avignon festival, The Rest Will Be Familiar to You from Cinema, a version of Euripides’ little-performed Phoenician Women, is appropriately transnational: a French version of a script that debuted in German in 2013, translated from English, itself adapted from Greek.
Focusing on the tragedy of Oedipus, it narrates a part of the tale we don’t often hear, the catastrophic fallout for the hero’s family. We encounter his mother Jocasta – who, catastrophically, he has married – her long-suffering daughter, Antigone, and their sons, Eteocles and Polynices, together locked in conflict. Oedipus himself only appears at the very end, blinded and befuddled. Centre stage in this version are the Women, halfway between a conventional Greek chorus and Macbeth’s Witches, administering malign fate and purring sphinx-like riddles: “If Anna has two more ponies than Miriam / and Miriam’s cat Bobby has seven kittens / then what is it like to kill?”
Taking its cue from this exam-paper-from-hell feel, director Daniel Jeanneteau sets the production in a modern-day school, and the Women – teenage non-professionals recruited from around Paris – are constantly and indelibly present. They flock like ravens when news arrives of the brothers’ grisly fight to the death, and when it comes to the ritual sacrifice of a young boy – the only solution to Oedipus’s blood curse – it is they who offer the knife.
Crimp’s text is as violent and sly as ever, full of lacerating swipes at the management-speak of contemporary warfare, but events are static, and Jeanneteau’s statuesque production doesn’t help. With long tracts of reported action and speech, it often feels like an animated prose poem. Though the setting is contemporary, the production feels stuck – more an exquisitely chiselled artefact than a thing of flesh and blood (though there’s certainly plenty of blood).
Despite excellent teamwork from the teens, and some fine solo performances – Solène Arbel’s wild-eyed Antigone stands out – it never quite makes the case for Crimp’s adaptation. Or, indeed, Euripides’ play.