Oresteia at the Almeida

Oresteia, Almeida, 8 July 2015 (matinée)

IckeExhibitsIn 493 BC the Greek Tragedian Phrynichus produced The Fall of Miletus at the Theatre of Dionysus. It was a response to the capture of the city by the Persians the previous year, and, Herodotus tells us, ‘the audience burst into tears and fined him a thousand drachmas for reminding them of a disaster that was so close to home’ (6.21, tr. Waterfield). I am inclined to level a similar fine against the Almeida’s Oresteia, which brings ancient tragedy home to its contemporary audience with unremitting emotive force. The play starts almost exactly on time, and the strict keeping of time is vital throughout; at many points a second’s ticking is heard in the background. The company slowly wanders on the stage, observing the audience, looking around the room. This goes on for longer than is perhaps comfortable for the audience: the cast take total possession of the room in this way. Then all but two depart, Agamemnon – instantly recognizable, Angus Wright could barely play anyone else: tall, slim, with high, cavernous cheekbones, and slicked-back grey hair – and another, whom the script identifies as Calchas (Rudi Dharmalingam), but his role in this play is more extensive than that of Aeschylus’ Calchas.

The first word in Robert Icke’s version is the same as Aeschylus’: ‘Theous’, but rather than opening the Watchman’s prayer for release from his nocturnal vigil, it is followed by a string of epithets for God, a string which crucially includes ‘The Judge. The Father.’ Icke’s version explicitly ties the authority of family, law, and religion together in a binding, bloody mesh. This is followed by some decidedly colloquial, even clichéd, language, confirming that the source text has fallen away to be carried away by something more immediate. Icke imports more than a little of Euripides into this play, and it is one play: the trilogy reconfigured as a four-act Oresteia. The whole of Act One can be classed as a deep exploration of the moral problem that presented Agamemnon at Aulis. Here the enemy is unnamed and far more immediately threatening than Priam’s Troy. Icke has created a dilemma where we do not have to believe in Zeus Xenios or Artemis in order to sympathise with Agamemnon. To call this play a version of Aeschylus is not strictly accurate: Icke has taken the outline of the trilogy and translated the myth into a twenty-first century social, political and spiritual world.

There is a little too much reliance on shouting to express heightened emotion throughout the play; the first instance is during Agamemnon’s dispute with his brother Menelaus (John Mackay) about the sacrifice (the euphemistic use of this term is powerfully addressed in this version), but there is more with Orestes later. The heightened volume worked best during moments of violent action: the coming of the winds and the assault on Klytemnestra.

Iphigenia is given some witty lines about not wanting to eat deer (a reference to the mythical tradition in which she was miraculously substituted by a deer at the moment of her sacrifice). As in the ancient tragedies, her death is the divine condition of the fair winds to release Agamemnon’s military force. Icke’s script offers two arguments for killing Iphigenia that make rhetorical sense of the senseless proposition: Menelaus asserts that, without the sacrifice, defeat is inevitable, and the future for her is unutterably bleak. When Klytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, alludes to the crimes committed upon others — especially women and girls — in war, Agamemnon interprets this as ‘wisdom’: ‘The child is the price of the war, and we don’t see the price of the war, we don’t see it, and this this will insist that I do’. To spare Iphigenia a worse fate, and for the head of state to suffer what he expects his people to suffer is effective rhetoric indeed, but the decision remains abhorrent and beyond rational conclusion. In that sense, all the rhetoric is wasted. Icke’s Klytemnestra recognizes Agamemnon’s ethos (in the Greek sense, his essential nature): ‘You were always going to do it. You liked to push back against it – it’s a good feeling, surrender, actually – but you knew, you knew from the first moment you heard – even before you heard the question – you knew what your answer would be. This was always going to happen.’

The killing follows shortly. The company has three young actors for Iphigenia; at this performance she was played by Eve Benioff Salama with winning sweetness and, in this scene, obedience. It is a modern killing: the action of the liquid and pill meticulously described by Calchas. Iphigenia sits on Agamemnon’s lap, she wears a saffron dress, opens her mouth playfully to accept the pill. I am not unmoved by this, and when she weakly asks to lie down, and for water, the scene becomes very hard to bear. By the time she is laid down and Agamemnon cries that it was the worst mistake, repeating ‘It was wrong’ (implicitly affirming the inadequacy of language in meeting the situation), and then, stage right, a door opens, spilling bright white light and raging wind, the emotional impact on my body is convulsive. Much of the rest of the play continues at this pitch of imminent emotional rupture.

Act Two picks up roughly where Aeschylus begins: anticipating the return of Agamemnon from the war. I’ve not seen a Klytemnestra more sympathetically played than by Lia Williams here. Her love for her children is apparent, but its overshadowing by grief at the murder of Iphigenia is evident without needing any measly explanation. Indeed, she was so sympathetic, I worried that the script would lose the stupendous scene of her exultation in Agamemnon’s gushing blood that crystallizes her tragedy in Aeschylus’ version. But when the scene arrives, Williams plays it utterly convincingly: she shifts into the mode naturally as the script builds to it, where finally she can announce, ‘I am alive – and I’m free’. By contrast, the role of Cassandra is underplayed in this version: her prophecy too supernatural, her references too specific to Greek mythology. It seems a missed opportunity, given this production’s strong attention to the theme of interpretation. When Cassandra (Hara Yannas) finally speaks, it is in Aeschylus’ original text, untranslated: thus the moving sound of otototoi popoi da / opollon opollon, etc., cries out on the stage, with the other actors’ English text competing over the top.

Act Three corresponds to the Choephoroi, the second play in Aeschylus’ trilogy. The sedate pacing and dialogue of Aeschylus’ version is still a difficulty in Icke’s: it was the only moment when I doubted the script decisions, simply because I felt that the discussion of moral quandary had been comprehensively staged in Act One. These concerns were soon allayed, but this is also the point where I should type out a ‘spoiler warning’. This act contains a stunning innovation that even now raises my arm hairs. The character of Electra (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a textual problem in Aeschylus’ trilogy. Where is she in Agamemnon? Nowhere. What is her role in the second part of Choephoroi? Seemingly forgotten (academics are given to dispute whether she appears at the door with Klytemnestra). Not to mention the famous problem of the graveside recognition, where her footprint exactly matches that of her brother. Icke deals with this in a simple and obvious way. Throughout the play, Orestes (Luke Thompson) is on stage in parallel dialogue with the character identified in the script as ‘Doctor’ (Lorna Brown): she seems at first therapist, then barrister or prosecutor. It is unarguably a production which emphasizes the characters’ individual psychology. After the heart-racing scene in which Klytemnestra and Orestes appear reconciled — then blackout — then Electra throttling Klytemnestra — then blackout — then Orestes throttling Klytemnestra, the Doctor confirms, ‘You’ve survived a trauma. Your sister died, Orestes: your sister, Iphigenia. She died. You survived. We have no record of another sister. You had one sister.’ An incidental consequence is that suddenly Cilissa, Orestes’ nurse who addressed Electra as ‘Orestes’ as she prayed by Agamemnon’s grave, no longer seems senile, but a necessary constant in the house. Appropriately, her actor, Annie Firbank (veteran of Carry on Nurse) takes the role of the sole Fury.

In Act Four, the court is played out overtly, though it is now clear that it has been proceeding throughout the play. Surprisingly, Icke does not temper or modernize Athene’s reasoning for her judgement: ‘In the practice of our lives, we favour men in all things […] it is appropriate that on behalf of this house of justice it is emphasised that men are favoured.’ The wording is careful: Athene is responding to practice, to custom. Calchas asks the audience to decide, silently, Orestes’ fate; I found the word that sat most comfortably in my head was ‘guilty’. Although I abhorred the punishment, I could find Orestes nothing but guilty.

There are some early references in the play to the multivalence of words (often involving the young Orestes, played on this occasion by Ilan Galkoff), sometimes the references are simplistic, but they serve to underscore the multiple possible interpretations of simple utterances. That the academic consultant on the production is Simon Goldhill is no surprise, as the final scenes echo his reading of the play: the court scenes explicitly reject the possibility of an unequivocal conclusion. And so the conclusion to the play was not transcendently harmonious, as I would have attempted, but abandoning us with consequences: Orestes alone, not knowing what to do. The Semnai Theai (the Furies in kindly guise who are enshrined at the heart of the city) are dealt with economically: Calchas says, ‘She is essential: the terror she holds keeps us from collapse’, and when Orestes calls her ‘pure – fury’, Klytemnestra (or her advocate) responds, ‘She’s kind’, with a disagreement about the power of the words used. Orestes ends this devastating performance repeating ‘What do I do?’ I head out, drained, and having lost a brolly in the theatre, to meet the impending tube strike.