Prometheus Bound

The Aquila Theatre Company’s production of this classic Greek tragedy is, by turns, astonishingly strong and startlingly deficient.

David Oyelowo in Prometheus Bound
(© Richard Termine)
David Oyelowo in Prometheus Bound
(© Richard Termine)

It’s not very likely that when Aeschylus devised Prometheus Bound in the early fifth century B.C., he had a Christ allegory in mind. There are, however, several jaw-dropping similarities between Jesus’ suffering on the cross and Prometheus’ being chained to a rock for stealing fire from the gods to benefit humankind. A director with any imagination can easily underline the connections, and this is exactly what’s been done by James Kerr, who directed (and translated) this revival of the classic Greek tragedy, first presented at London’s Sound Theatre in 2005 and imported now by the Aquila Theatre Company in association with Classic Stage Company. The result is an often astonishingly strong yet sometimes startlingly deficient production.

Prometheus Bound is at its mightiest in the sweaty, muscular performance of David Oyelowo, who apparently has a continuing and valuable collaboration with Kerr that resembles the one that the classics-loving Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner share. Clad in a loincloth and bound so his arms are stretched wide in the most obvious visual allusion to Jesus, Oyelowo declaims Aeschylus’ fiery orations with battered authority.

Bleeding from a chest wound (the second most obvious Calvary reference), Oyelowo talks with unflagging bravado of Prometheus’ momentous thievery and its ramifications. The character’s New Testament-presaging martyrdom is enhanced by set and costume designer Paul Wills, who presents a dark stage with chains strung from on high in such a way that it looks as if the protagonist might ascend to heaven on metal wings.

No matter how hard Prometheus strains against the ties that bind, he’s unable to move very far; his imprisonment becomes his passion, and that’s the whole of Aeschylus’ drama. His sole recourse is to recount his incriminating activity and to describe his future. Prometheus’ name, which means “forward thinker,” indicates that he accomplishes the clairvoyant feat with accuracy.

Though condemned to remain isolated, Prometheus is not totally abandoned. Initially, he’s a defiant host to captors Power (Michael Dixon), Violence (Julie McNiven), and reluctant blacksmith Hephaestus (George Bartenieff). Eventually, he entertains the Zeus-beloved and Hera-stalked Io (McNiven), the Polonius-like Oceanus (Bartenieff), the insolent Hermes (Dixon), and a babbling chorus (Therese Barbato, Autumn Dornfeld, Erin Krakow, Susannah Millonzi, and Sipiwe Moyo).

The expansive language in which Prometheus addresses his visitors is the play’s great beauty. Whether explaining how the theft of fire has enriched benighted man, resisting Oceanus’ advice to “stop being angry,” bridling at Hermes’ meddling on Zeus’ behalf, or telling the bovine-ized Io what to expect as she travels, he gives out with speeches of steely luxuriance. Detailing the expanding gains that fire has brought humanity, he says after a long list, “There were other things: treasure in the earth. There was bronze and iron and silver and gold, and it was I who found them; say it wasn’t me and you would be lying. Hear it in brief: Everything mortals know they learned from Prometheus.”

These self-aggrandizing sentiments attest to Prometheus’ complexity. After all, a good thief is still a thief. Aeschylus’ Prometheus prompts serious thought about the gray areas in which morality dwells. Surely, that was the seminal dramatist’s intention, and it explains the play’s enduring strength.

Oyelowo and Dixon (who was also in Kerr’s 2005 production) deliver the play’s speeches with blazing conviction, their vowels and consonants resounding. Dixon’s Power spits his venom in a lower-class accent; and his Hermes, dressed by costumer Wills to resemble a bell captain, has a minion’s hauteur.

Unfortunately, for a work in which voices are of primary importance, Kerr has cast seven vocally challenged actors in other roles. The usually stalwart Bartenieff speaks his lines as if he’s a Rent-a-Wreck running out of gas. McNiven’s Io is barely audible, and the five other young women give an impression of “Aeschylus Nite” at a campus sorority that’s both sleep-inducing and infuriating. There’s a difference between innocence and insipidity, but Kerr and his female players don’t acknowledge it.

When Aeschylus wrote this play , he indicated that Oceanus should arrive on a four-footed bird. The idea was to introduce a comically awkward, mood-changing figure. In Kerr’s published text, he calls for Oceanus to enter on “a winged sea monster.” But in his production, he uses neither four-footed bird nor sea monster. Oceanus simply walks on. Nevertheless, when Oyelowo isn’t speaking, this Prometheus Bound too often moves with its own clumsy, four-footed gait.

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Prometheus Bound

Closed: April 14, 2007