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A CurtainUp London Review
Agamemnon (Angus Wright) is told about a decision he has to take, a road that has to split. While he is interviewed by the media, the war to rescue his sister in law Helen is stalled because the fleet is becalmed. Klytemnestra (Lia Williams) plays with her son Orestes (Ilan Galkoff, Cameron Lane, Bobby Smalldridge) and her daughter Iphigenia (Amelia Baldock, Eve Benioff Salama, Clara Read). There is church music as Agamemnon embraces his children. Electra (Jessica Brown Findlay) is portrayed as a sulky teenager already attacking her mother and showing preference for her father.
The scene round the family dining table could be that of any affluent moden family, with Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes causing chaos. Iphigenia asks awkward questions about the venison they are eating and although Klytemnestra tries to deflect questions about the deer and the death of the deer, Orestes and Electra do not spare their sister. This charming domestic scene with tormenting siblings gives a real family interpretation to the Greek myth.
It is all the more shocking when two politicians, one of them Agamemnon's brother Menelaus (John Mackay) persuade Agamemnon that his daughter must be sacrificed so that they can win the war. This version is not in Aeschylus and how they persuade him is by telling him what an awful life Iphigenia would have in an occupied country as a young girl liable to be raped and worse. I was reminded here of the story of Abraham and Isaac, the sacrifice of a child ordered to test obedience to God.
It is also more poignant because little Iphigenia runs around the stage singing songs and clutching a doll. The counsellors tell Agamemnon that he will be putting his country ahead of his own family in real terms like a ghastly piece of politico-speak or spin. Iphigenia is fed poison in hospital dosing cups by her father.
When Agamemnon returns from the war, there is a press conference led by Klytemnestra to welcome him back a little like Evita's scene on the balcony. Lia Williams gives a remarkable performance as the mother whose child, a part of her she says, was sacrificed. Cassandra (Hara Yannas) whom Agamemnon has brought back from the war speaks in a foreign tongue fulfilling her prophecy that she will always tell the truth but never be believed.
I did not like Robert Icke's take on Aegisthus. He is important not just as Klytemnestra's lover but in his own right, as cousin to Agamemnon and brother to the children served up in a pie by Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus' father, to Thyestes, Aegisthus' father and Atreus' brother.
Angus Wright plays both the ghost of Agamemnon and Aegisthus with no change of clothing or accent or delineation which people who didn't know the story were confused by. This also means we do not see Aegisthus' part in the murder of Agamemnon. Aegisthus has his own grudge match. Of course in ancient Athens everyone in the open air theatres would have known these stories.
I liked the Libation Bearers act the least with Orestes (Luke Thompson) telling his story to a psychiatrist. Orestes is presented with a double bind. He is obligated to avenge his father but equally he should not kill his mother.
In the final scene the Furies pursue Orestes for his matricide and the court sits to decide whether he should be found guilty or innocent. I think this production did not clarify that Athene (Hara Yannas) is the judge behind the glass screen. However the court scene is very powerful with the women lined up to prosecute Orestes and the men to defend him and has all the modernity of a twenty first century trial. The example of the court was of Athenian democracy at work but as the vote is tied, Athene rules for Orestes to break the cycle of revenge.
The Fury (Annie Firbank) has two mantras: "there is a death outstanding" and "the child is the price." She walks on a repeated path round the courtroom like an animal stereotyping during Orestes' court case. In Athene's summing up, she explains "we favour men in all things". As a mother I couldn't forgive the murder of a daughter, this could only happen in an unequal society.
This thrilling production with its beautiful glass doored set set by Hildegard Bechtler and lighting by Natasha Chivers, kept my attention for the full three hours 45 minutes. Rupert Goold said he wanted "to take the Oresteia out of the Attic". This clever pun refers to Attica, the name for Athens and what he has achieved is modern resonance. The sand and the dust of the battles could be Afghanistan, Klytemnestra and Agamemnon could be living in Clapham and Electra and Orestes are a conflicted generation.
The Almeida is London's most exciting theatre and we look forward to this important season of revitalised and resonating Greek plays.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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