Review: The Oresteia (Almeida Theatre)

Oresteia at the Almeida

Where: Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London, N1 1TA
When: 29th May-18th July 2015, Evenings: 7pm, Saturday matinees: 1pm
How long: 3h40 with pauses/an interval of 5m, 15m and 3m
How much: £10-£38
Tickets from: the Almeida web site or by calling the box office on 020 7359 4404

Back in the day, a mere 2,500 years ago, Greek tragedies used to be performed in groups of four: a comical satyr play preceded by three regular tragedies – some happy, some sad, despite the name. Those three tragedies were frequently but not always trilogies, but unfortunately only one of these linked trilogies survives: The Oresteia. It was written by the first of the great Athenian playwrights, Aeschylus, and dramatises a story already well known at that time – the story of the great Trojan general Agamemnon, his return home to Greece after the war, his death and the subsequent avenging of that death.

I say well known, but between Homer, Hesiod and other even earlier traditions, it’s not quite clear if there was ever one definite story, with versions surviving in which Agamemnon is killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, her lover Aegisthus or both of them. Why do they kill him? Perhaps there was an enmity between Aegisthus’ family and Agamemnon’s. Perhaps it’s because he brought back a Trojan slave girl, Cassandra, with him. Or perhaps it’s because he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia – or was it Iphimede? – to Artemis to atone for sacrilege against her sacred deer and to ensure good winds to sail for Troy.

It is Aeschylus’ own later elaboration on those stories that are the best known. In Agamemnon, the eponymous ruler returns to his kingdom after 10 years in Troy, where he’s killed almost immediately in his bath by Clytemnestra. In The Libation Bearers, their son Orestes returns years later from exile and in collusion with his sister Electra – the subject of her own plays by both Sophocles and Euripides – he conspires to murder his mother. Matricide having been committed, the gods of injustice, the Furies, want their vengeance and in The Eumenides, only the intervention of Athena and her establishment of trials by jury are enough to stop them and to establish a new, kindlier system of jurisprudence.

And then in Proteus, the companion satyr play that no longer exists, following the Trojan War, Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus and his wife Helen (of Troy) run aground on the island of the shape-changing sea god Proteus, somewhere off the coast of Egypt, where they are chased around, Benny Hill-style, by satyrs looking for sexy time.

Now, the Almeida is mounting a season of Greek tragedies this year dedicated to establishing their relevance to a modern audience and as you can tell from that summary above, as delightful as it all is to people like me, not everyone is going to find the original texts quite as accessible, particularly since a lot of the trilogy is about the changing relationship between mortals and a pantheon of gods in which very few people now believe.

So in this, the first Oresteia of the year, we have a somewhat freeform adaptation of the original text, updated for the present day. And somewhat surprisingly for a trilogy, it comes in four parts.

While Aeschylus had to make do with a chorus, no more than two people speaking at the same time and a male-only cast wearing masks, adaptor/director Robert Icke gets to pull out all the stops in both the writing and the direction to create a very credible, modernised version of the trilogy. It doesn’t quite work all the time, but a lot more succeeds than fails – the result is even haunting.

The biggest surprise is that Icke decides against using the Trojan War and Greece at all, instead setting everything in unnamed modern countries, of whom Agamemnon is a decidedly modern ruler, having to deal with the press and public opinion. And with no Trojan War, Icke can’t rely on the audience’s pre-knowledge, so he creates an entirely new first act based on both myth and other Greek tragedies, including Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis. Here, we see the happy family of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra, Orestes and Iphigenia facing the imminent prospect of war with another country but hoping that everything’s going to be okay.

For a good hour and a quarter, the play watches Agamemnon’s dithering as first he receives a message or prophecy from Zeus or Jehovah or Allah or one of the many other gods listed for a whole minute by the prophet, which says that he must sacrifice his daughter to win the forthcoming war, and then he equivocates between his duty as a leader and his duty as a father, before eventually killing his daughter.

Despite being a complete addition to the Aeschylean trilogy, this is actually the play’s most successful section, making the sacrifice Agamemnon has to make in order to safeguard his people truly gut-wrenching and tragic; by rejecting any one religion yet still making Agamemnon a man of faith, the play allows the audience to see its relevance to modern leaders.

As well as the modern dress chosen for the cast, Icke also uses other tools to convey the show’s modernity, including an electronic display that flashes up messages to the audience, including ‘times of death’ of various characters and the ‘exhibits’ that will be used in the later trial; the cast even film proceedings to be displayed on an on-stage display.

A uniting framework
To unite the plays, Icke uses the framework of an adult Orestes trying to recall with an unnamed woman the events of his childhood that led to his subsequent murder of his mother. Orestes sits on stage watching proceedings, including those involving his younger self, and discusses them with the woman. Icke cleverly uses this mechanism to square off the different versions of the myth, with the first act giving us a clearly happy and blameless Clytemnestra who kills Agamemnon purely because he sacrificed their daughter, the second giving us one a slightly crazed one whose lover Aegisthus should have been in previous scenes but for some reason wasn’t – why is that Orestes?

Although the play is happy to keep aspects of the original, such as the prophecy of the eagles and the pregnant hare which is used in the later court scenes as something almost on a par with scientific evidence, at times, the play is often about as close to Aeschylus’ original as O Brother Where Art Thou? was to The Odyssey. However, if you know the originals and the myths, you’ll spot how Icke has managed to reference them, sometimes in different settings – Artemis’ deer, for example, becomes an instructive example to the children about killing animals for meat, while the carpet of Agamemnon becomes a modern day red carpet. The Furies aren’t literally deities, but Orestes fears their fury, and their transformation into the Eumenides – the Kindly Ones – becomes a matter of perception.

The updating also allows Icke to invert some of the misogyny of the original. Apollo’s speech in The Eumenides, in which he says that matricide is a lesser crime than fratricide as women are less important than men, is notorious, as is Athena’s agreement. Here, the ‘representative of the gods’ who gets to cast the final vote does so explicitly because it is a patriarchal society and the death of a woman is treated as a lesser crime by that society.

Problems
Not all of the updating works. It’s hard to balance the existence of all the modern technology and television with the fact that Agamemnon can go to war for 10 years without hearing anything back from home or vice versa. Is there no phone in this world, no Skype? Icke’s use of the unreliable narrator also goes too far, even suggesting (spoiler alert) that Electra didn’t really exist and was just a figment of Orestes’ imagination, in order to rationalise some of the more poetic and less realistic plot points of The Libation Bearers. The ending, an earlier part of the original play that’s been relocated at the end, doesn’t work as a finale and doesn’t follow from what’s proceeded it, either.

All the same, it’s an impressive, often moving piece of work that makes you think about both the original and modern society, which is what the Almeida intended. Its divorcing from its Greek setting altogether is a bit of a cop-out, but justifiable, I think, and it can be a bit too clever and ‘actorly’ for its own good at times. But it’s got a strong cast and makes The Oresteia a self-contained, accessible unit for the modern audience, so I’d give it a whirl if I were you.

The audience
Very well behaved, although a bit critical, judging by the fact that three people sitting around and who snorted a bit during the first act never came back after the first ‘pause’. I don’t think that was our fault, though.

The Almeida

The theatre
The Almeida’s a bit sixth-form college, tucked away on a side street and with just stalls and a circle decked with slightly utilitarian, upholstered seats. We were at the end of row B in the stalls, which was very close to the stage, but occasionally all we could see was the backs of actors, so I’d recommend the mid-section instead. The circle looked like it would be no worse than the stalls.

Drink prices
£8 or so for a large glass of red or white wine. The bar is pretty slow, thanks to the clientele being a bit posh and North London, and not really getting the whole ‘working out what you want to buy before you get to the bar thing’. For the run of this play, at least, and perhaps for the whole of the Greek season, a reduced selection of the normal wines is being offered, with Greek wines being offered instead. If you’re used to Greek wine, they’re fine, since they’re from the Alpha Estate, but don’t feel obliged to order the retsina.

Oresteia programmeThe programme
£4, with articles on the nature of justice as well as a slightly misleading one about the history of the play by academic advisor Simon Goldhill. My one’s better.

Cast
Lorna Brown
Jessica Brown Findlay
Rudi Dharmalingam
Annie Firbank
Joshua Higgott
John Mackay
Luke Thompson
Lia Williams
Angus Wright
Hara Yannas

Amelia Baldock
Eve Benioff Salama
Ilan Galkoff
Cameron Lane
Clara Read
Bobby Smalldridge

Version/Direction Robert Icke
Design Hildegard Bechtler
Light Natasha Chivers
Sound Tom Gibbons
Video Tim Reid
Casting Julia Horan CDG
Assistant Direction Anthony Almeida
Consultant Academic Simon Goldhill
Costume Supervision Laura Hunt
Dramaturg Duška Radosavljević
Casting Associate Lotte Hines
Assistant Sound Designer Dan Balfour

  • Mark Carroll

    Interesting summary, especially the part about how he must sacrifice his daughter to win the forthcoming war.

  • It's an interesting change from the original, which was purely about being able to get to Troy, rather than winning the war. The play then gives Agamemnon the ethical dilemma of “Would you sacrifice your own daughter to save the lives of your soldiers and countrymen?”

  • JustStark

    by rejecting any one religion yet still making Agamemnon a man of faith,
    the play allows the audience to see its relevance to modern leaders.

    I didn't think that worked, actually: in the original, there's no faith at all: everyone just knows the Gods are real and will do what they say (even if sometimes they interpret 'what they say' in the manner of the most obnoxious genie). And in the reworking, (and I thought the first, wholly invented, section was the most successful) for Agamemnon's dilemma to work, it has to be a certain trolley problem: would you kill your daughter to save your country?

    The whole tension goes out of it if it's, 'Do you believe the voices that are telling you to kill your daughter, or are you a misguided religious fanatic?'

    I think Icke realises this, which is why in the scenes about the dilemma, characters who aren't Agamemnon make passing references to the faith-based nature of acting on a promise from the gods, but then quickly switch to talking about the dilemma in its own terms.

    At first I thought that this was just because he thought he had to put the 'maybe the gods aren't real' in as a sop to modern audiences, who would expect that sort of thing, and that he should have had the courage of doing Aeschylus the credit, given the liberties he was taking with his play, of taking at least his world-view at face value; but then it came back in the trial scene with the suggestions that in fact all the signs and potents were really just misinterpreted random chances, and that the killing of the daughter had nothing to do with the winds coming, which basically undercut everything.

    The ending really was a confused mess.

  • The ending does screw things up a lot. I think it all just about hangs together until then, though

  • JustStark

    Oh, yes, after the first section I thought, 'This is promising,' after the second and third, 'This is very interesting,' and after the final section, 'What the Hell did I just watch?'

  • I saw the Globe's Oresteia last night. Far more traditional version of the text, although oddly comedic. But the third act is very much the same thing: “What the Hell did I just watch?”

    I think the Almeida/Trafalgar version is just too clever for its own good. It's trying to be contemporary but throws the entire kitchen sink into the mix and the result is the final act.

  • JustStark

    I think the Almeida/Trafalgar version is just too clever for its own good

    Mm, I'd say the reverse: that the problem is that it's not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

    Just like Constellations — how on earth did that ever get good reviews?

    And also The Hard Problem, but that's on a different scale — Tom Stoppard not being as clever as he thinks he is is still far cleverer than any six other playwrights put together. Were it written by anyone else it would have been great, the problem is that we kind of expected beyond-great from Stoppard and were disappointed as a result.

    I'm so glad I saw Hangmen or I would be despairing of the theatre.

  • “Mm, I'd say the reverse: that the problem is that it's not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.”

    That's probably a better way of putting it