In three hours and forty minutes precisely, Robert Icke’s new version of Aeschylus’ three tragedies that constitute the Oresteia, unfolds on the stage of the Almeida Theatre in North London. The “precisely” is important, because Icke has also directed the highly compressed production, and he plays on our own sense of time and urgency. Digital clocks tell the time – to the minute – of the deaths of the various characters, and we, the audience, are herded into the auditorium by ushers, aided in their task by time-telling boards in the foyer. We are admonished to be in our seats in good time, or else be locked out. This of course creates a little anxiety in the spectators. I wonder if this is not analogous to the experience of a 5th century BCE Athenian theatre-goer, for whom these tragedies provided (says Aristotle) a catharsis – we know that the audience was thought to experience emotions of pity and terror that needed to be purged? Perhaps a nerve-wracked 21st century audience is a near equivalent.
Icke has taken a good deal of liberty with the texts, but it seems to me that he has been as successful in updating Aeschylus as he has, as director, in setting the trilogy of plays in the present time. Behind the bare stage designer Hildegard Bechtel arranges sinister sliding panels, some of which conceal Agamemnon’s fatal bath, and Natasha Chivers’ creepy lighting and a camera crew with CCTV do the rest.
Icke departs from Aeschylus by staging the killing of Iphigenia by her father, which in the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon is recounted as a backstory by the chorus. It’s a 21st century, chilling, drinking the Kool-Aid scene, which makes it akin to putting a beloved pet to sleep, a hard-to-forget horror but, if anything, underplayed, not sensationalised. He treats the arguments of the plays weightily and seriously, without simplification. How do you put a stop to revenge killings? Why heed the order of a god to kill anyone? If the god wants someone dead, says Klytemnestra, why doesn’t he just send an illness and take the life himself? The play questions Utilitarianism: can even the highest end justify these means? Is it ever right to kill an innocent person in cold blood, even to assure victory in a war? Can a court overcome its inherent masculine bias when Orestes is tried for matricide?
Orestes gets off the charge because of the casting vote of the god. There’s no catharsis, just a lot of hard, puzzling, unanswered questions.
Though the programme democratically does not identify the roles played by the actors named in it, there are outstanding performances, starting with the lean and wolfish Angus Wright as Agamemnon, who is completely convincing as a loving father, and then astonishes us doubling as Aegisthus, his wife’s lover. This is probably faithful to ancient Greek practice, where the actor would merely have changed his mask.
Lia Williams is stunning as Klytemnestra. We believe her when she says how much she loves her husband; and she conveys the full complexity of the character’s emotions when she learns that her younger daughter is to be sacrificed because her religious husband believes he’s been instructed to kill her by “the god,” in order to have the wind blow and make it possible to sail to war.
The children, the young Orestes and Iphigenia (from a pool of six child actors), were excellent the night I saw the play. Luke Thompson is an interesting older Orestes, and Icke has had the clever idea of getting him to reconstruct his past in dialogue with his psychotherapist. Elektra is played as a teenaged rebel by Jessica Brown Findlay, a long way from her role in Downton Abbey.
This Oresteia marks the beginning of Rupert Goold’s Greek Season at the Almeida. If the other productions are of this quality, he will have achieved a cultural landmark.