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Na Peirsigh/Persians review: A mind-numbing report from a miserable war

Theatre: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s translation of the tragedy by Aeschylus finds parallels with Irish history but sometimes succumbs to information overload

Na Peirsigh/Persians

Peacock stage, Abbey Theatre, Dublin

“Oh, it is so sad to be the first one to report bad news,” says a messenger, dreading his dispatch, at one point in the sombre Na Peirsigh/Persians. A brutal account of defeat, neglectful leadership and overwhelming loss in a naval conflict during the Greco-Persian Wars, the report is as it was when Aeschylus’s tragedy premiered, in 472 BC.

The most obvious question to ask of any revival – this one is in Irish, with English surtitles – is: how best to break the news? Conor Hanratty’s production is appropriately freighted: it begins with a chorus of Persian councillors moving in candlelit procession through a beautifully minimalist palace, awaiting news of their fleet. In her translation, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill alters the play’s structure so that this combines with a lengthy roll-call of almost 20 kings and their top cavalry, from Armistre to Xerxes. To contemporary ears, it could sound like the taking of attendance at a meeting where you don’t know anybody.

To Aeschylus’s credit, there is some attempt at introductions, though individuals get lost in the crowd. (Best of luck singling out the contribution of Artembares the charioteer or Dadakes the chiliarch.) Given the risk of being overloaded with information, any modern telling may require additional adjustments to the script, including a trimming of the play’s lyrical yet remote observations.

In following the dynamics of Greek tragedy, of bouncing individual speechmakers against a wider chorus, the drama doesn’t manage to make feel immediate the arrival of Caitríona Ní Mhurchú’s Persian queen, who is awaiting news of Xerxes’ fleet. (“We bow to her, and greet with kind words,” says a councillor, played by Brendan Conroy, still talking about her in the third person.) There is a greater chance of frisson when, after a messenger (Timmy Creed) arrives with news of the fleet’s defeat, she begins an inquiry into her son’s misguided leadership.


In exploring that aftermath, Hanratty and Ní Dhomhnaill discover neat parallels with early Irish history, showing mourners break into an inconsolable keen and casting as Xerxes the singer Naoise Mac Cathmhaoil, whose sean-nós song attempts to reconcile a king’s pitiable guilt with a grieving society’s contempt.

The news from the war is indeed woeful, with descriptions of towns and cities emptied of men who left to fight, all slaughtered in one battle because of a disastrous military strategy. The suffering is on an unconceivable scale – “Even if I spent 10 days reciting it line by line, I couldn’t give a whole description,” says Creed’s messenger.

Aeschylus, a veteran of that war, insists on a report nonetheless; The Persians always seemed an attempt to close the door on it. (“The horror of this disaster is driving me out of my mind,” says the queen.) But the detail is mind-numbing. At one point a wiser Persian king arrives and asks to be brought up to date, necessitating the story to be retold. “Tell me everything, clearly,” he says. Here we go again.

Na Peirsigh/Persians is on the Peacock stage of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until Saturday, 6th April

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture