The Oresteia – Trafalgar Studios – Review by Pat Levy
London’s West End seems to be awash with light-hearted, life-enhancing musicals these days so it was with a certain trepidation that I set out for a theatre near Trafalgar Square to see the three-hours-and-a-bit adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy.
Nothing like a bit of matricide, filicide and mariticide (I had to look those last two up in Wikipedia) to brush those blues away, I always say.
The myth tells the story of Agamemnon who is told by the goddess Artemis to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia in order to reach Troy, thus triggering a seemingly endless series of revenge killings as Clytemnestra, his wife, tops him and his concubine Cassandra when he eventually returns victorious.
This leads to her son exacting his revenge on Orestes and her new husband Aegisthus. In Aeschylus’ trilogy, the revenge killing, driven on through the generations by the Furies, is finally put to an end by the goddess Athene and a human court which acquits Orestes.
The London version (on until early November at Trafalgar Studios) by Robert Icke moves the story to a generic modern state and has Agamemnon as a thoughtful politician, doing what is best for the state even though he knows it is heartbreakingly wrong. Iphigenia’s murder takes up a good third of the play, with the tortured Agamemnon, clearly a man who loves his family, agreeing to the horrifyingly clinical sacrifice of his youngest daughter. Events in this play are enclosed by an amnesiac Orestes telling what he remembers to a woman who seems to be his psychiatrist.
The myth plays itself out on a fascinating stage – an electronic news display board announces times of death and other vital facts, characters are interviewed on camera, the footage flashed up on to screens around the theatre, huge screens shift across the stage and change from being transparent to being opaque. Occasionally, the screens reflect the presence of the audience, reminding us that we are in part the jury judging these people. A table and benches are shuffled about to represent a family dinner, a balcony, a bed, a courtroom, while a compère figure bosses the audience about regarding interval times (triggering a few nervous giggles in the audience when I was there).
The pinnacle of the evening’s events though has to be the performances of Angus Wright as Agamemnon and Lia Williams as Clytemnestra who drag you with them through the anguish, hatred and blood lust of the evening. Lia Williams moves from being a happy loving wife and mother, Cherie Blair-like in support of her politician husband, to a raging murderous harpy.
The play segues (I always wanted to use that word) into a courtroom scene, actors moving from officers of the court to figures in a re-enactments of events. Orestes is found crazy but innocent, thus ending the bloodletting, but there is no catharsis – he’s still Orestes and has killed his mother (and apparently invented a sister).
It’s a stunning piece of theatre, played out for some reason to a background of the Beach Boys and the hours slip by in a maelstrom of family bickering, bloodletting and furniture moving. I’d go so far as to say I’d go and watch it again. My only reservation was the cute little girl who keeps wandering about even after she’s been euthanased (yeah, yeah, I know – poor Iphigenia) and the compère figure who for me kept breaking the spell of the story, unsuspending my disbelief as it were. At one stage he asks the audience to declare Orestes innocent or guilty and I had to fight down the desire to shout out ‘look out, he’s behind you’, but that’s just me, I guess.
Oresteia, Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London, until November 7th.
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