Robert Icke wants to do something with his adaptation of The Oresteia. He wants to smooth out the contrivances of Aeschylus’ original tragedy while increasing the emotional intensity. While I applaud that effort—recontextualisation is crucial for modern theatre—the funny thing is that for all its clever techniques, Oresteia leaves me wanting more formality in these kinds of adaptations. Coming out of the Almeida, having sat through more than 3 hours of violence and noise, I realised that the violence and noise is not what makes Greek theatre so special.
Now, there is a conscious attempt on Icke’s part to break up the drama, and it is thoughtful: the entire action is framed as evidence presented in the trial featured in the Eumenides, and therefore the intervals (referred to as pauses) are the intervals within a trial setting. This is given weight by the use of a digital clock that marks the breaks of the piece: 10 minutes, then 15, 5 and 1. We are forced into these much as the characters are forced into the servitude of the Gods. Rudi Dharmalingham’s character, essentially a legal clerk, is exacting when he tells the audience that the action will start in a few arbitrary minutes, and what is fantastic is that, despite being talked down to, we are all the more compelled to get back to our seats in time.
What Oresteia does best is its atmosphere: the bareness of the stage and the framing of Orestes’ cross-examination—in between the bloody action of the play—means that the audience never feels comfortable. Despite Agamemnon’s family life being treated with sweetness and commensality, the lighting (thanks to Natasha Chivers), along with the staging, is cold. This coldness is further embodied in the aforementioned clock which also record the times of the characters’ deaths. The table at which Agamemnon (Angus Wright) and his family sit could well be used for surgery. The house that the king and Klytemnestra (Lia Williams) live in is as dead as they will be.
From these observations it may appear as though I was very much engaged with the whole thing, but Oresteia stumbles in crucial areas. Admittedly, it is a nice touch that the whole first section expands on Iphigenia’s death at the hands of Agamemnon—something that the chorus only speak of in the original—however, as is the greatest problem with the modern staging of Ancient Greek drama, indifference as to the violence sets in too easily. While Icke’s decision for the sleek set works in one way it fails in another: it ruins the sadness and fear surrounding the actual killings. Iphigenia’s death becomes merely another moment: the dialogue sets up the importance of family through their dinner, but the desperation from the war is not given enough precedence; therefore Agamemnon’s hamartia is far too arbitrary—it draws a parallel to the flatness of a recent Game of Thrones episode which bases its plot heavily on this particular aspect of mythology. Klytemnestra also comes around too easily, and this is attributable to the unremarkable blocking of the scene and to Lia Williams’ inability to genuinely communicate her character’s anagnorisis.
Despite the weakness of the construction of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, there is still merit in the minimalism of how she dies. The deaths of the two parents, to contrast, are accompanied by an unwanted theatrical assault: crescendoing, looping music with extreme physical vocal intensity by the actors. It simply does not succeed: it alienates rather than absorbs. The looping of ‘God Only Knows’ launches the production into the pitfall of all unsuccessful Greek tragedies: apathy. We are given too much to deal with and lack the necessary build-up of the moment that a superior production would have had. There is undeniably technical prowess in the play’s most dramatic scenes but they are ultimately anodyne. Matri- and patricide should not be taken lightly.
To the cast, the standout is undoubtedly Angus Wright: he is Agamemnon. His wavering strength and meekness in gesture subtly illustrate the half-life he leads: dead and alive; family man and leader; lover and fighter. There is also a memorable rendition of Cassandra by Hara Yannas, despondent in the realisation of her character’s and Agamemnon’s fate but skilled enough not to appear histrionic.
Overall, there are enough intelligent choices in this play for it be worth seeing. It is not of the same quality as Icke’s 1984, but the direction and appearance of the production may be the thing one is looking for; for others, it may be numb and impress in equal quantities.