REVIEW: Oresteia, Almeida Theatre ✭✭✭

Oresteia at the Almeida Theatre
Oresteia at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Alastair Muir

Almeida Theatre
12 June 2015
3 Stars

On trial for his life, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Klytemnestra, who is charged with the murder of his mother, she having murdered his father, who murdered his sister, makes this passionate speech:

“There isn’t one true version. There isn’t. There isn’t one story – a line of truth that stretches start to end. That doesn’t happen anymore, maybe it never happened, but even as I say this now, as I say this now, in each of your minds you create your own versions, different lenses pointing at the same thing at the same time and seeing that thing differently – it depends too much – the day you’ve had, what you feel about your  mother, the thought you thought before this one – it all floods in, this thing this whole thing is helpless because your brain creates stories in which it is right.”

That sentiment applies equally to the text as to the issue about which Orestes opines – how to judge another human being’s actions.

This is Oresteia, not The Oresteia, the trilogy of plays (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) which won Aeschylus a prize in 458BC and which is considered the “original family drama” and the launching pad for all modern drama, but the free-wheeling, self-indulgent, filmic, and loose “adaptation” by Robert Icke which is now playing at the Almeida, kicking off Rupert Goold’s Greeks season.

Orestes’ point is true of theatre generally – everyone’s view about any production on any given day can vary for the reasons he cites – but it is certainly true about adaptations or revivals where the director (here also the adaptor) wants to make specific points.

Aeschylus wrote at a time when the supremacy of the patriarch was assumed and when revenge was de rigeur. Indeed, Aeschylus’ trilogy is credited with moving the concept of justice along, separating the notions of revenge and justice, and emphasising the need for innocence to be presumed unless proven otherwise. Of course, he did it within the accepted patriarchal framework of his day, and so any consideration of his work now needs careful positioning.

Icke takes a decisively feminist position in his adaptation, which is admirable. Klytemnestra is the power figure in this trilogy; not Agamemnon or Orestes. (Interestingly, though, it’s still named after Orestes). There are other powerful women too: Electra, Athene, the Fury/Blind Justice. But the entire proceedings reach their dramatic highpoint when one of Orestes’ prosecutors, in the shape of the deceased Klytemnestra, makes this point:

“A sister, a father, a mother – are dead. There has to come an end. But allow me to ask the house: why does the murder of the mother count for less than that of the father? Because the woman is less important. Why is the mother’s motive for revenge lesser than the son’s? She avenged a daughter; he a father. Because the woman is less important. This woman has paid the price. But this house cannot be a place where the woman is less important.”

It sounds great. And Lia Williams, delivering the lines, does her very best work of the evening in this scene, and around this argument.

But…it is all nonsense. And quite misses the very point Aeschylus was making.

Firstly, Klytemnestra was not placed on trial, so no question of equality arises. Secondly, Orestes exacted revenge as was the then custom – the great moral dilemma Aeschylus posed was to whom did Orestes owe greater allegiance – the murdered father or the mother who birthed and nursed him but killed his father? But the Court is not considering revenge but justice. The question is whether he is guilty or not guilty. No one asked that question of Klytemnestra.

Thirdly, no one seems perturbed by the role Electra played in goading Orestes to commit the crime. Partly, this is because in this version she seems not to really exist; she is discounted as a crazed imperfect memory/fantasy figure of Orestes, but in the original she was his sister and urged him to take vengeance on their mother. Fourthly, the murder of Aegisthus, Klytemnestra’s lover and the usurper of Agamemnon’s place in the world, also by Orestes, is not even considered worthy of a trial. The murder of a man is nothing compared to the murder of a woman?

This is not to suggest that women are given parity with men in life – they aren’t, and that is wrong and should change – but serves merely to suggest the flaws in Icke’s approach. There are some wonderful images, some potent exchanges, some brilliant flashes of inspiration – but, overall, his Oresteia does not hold together dramatically. For a production which lasts three hours and forty minutes, many many minutes are spent biding time.

The first Act is a dramatisation of a section dealt with relatively quickly by the Chorus in Agamemnon, the first of Aeschylus’ trilogy, and it tells of Agamemnon’s decision to kill his daughter, Iphigenia, to ensure a favourable outcome for the Trojan War. It is very long, very dull, and although there are moments of savage raw power (such as the image of father cradling daughter as she takes her last breath), no case is made, dramatically, for the extensive treatment given to this section of the plot.

The first Act is also full of shouting. Nothing is better calculated to snuff out the potential for real dramatic power than shouting. Except perhaps a loud wind machine which, while creating an interesting effect, eliminates, entirely, the possibility of hearing dialogue.

The second Act is much better, partly because Luke Thompson’s exceptional Orestes comes to the fore, with both his therapist/interrogator, the precise and perfectly poised Lorna Brown and Jessica Brown Findlay’s potent Electra. Icke’s major achievement in the adaptation is the fragmentation he brings to the linear narrative – by framing the wider arc as segments of the investigation and arrest of Orestes, the ephemeral, the remembered, the possible and the actual all come into play. Are we seeing actual events unfold or merely Orestes’ memory of those events?

This clever, innovative approach really livens up proceedings, and provides great scope for haunting, shocking and electrifying images. There is literally a bloodbath when Agamemnon is killed, and Icke and Natasha Chivers work exceptional lighting effects – blackouts of visceral alarm, ghostly reflections of what was or might have been or what will be, and camera and screen work which provides a modern look and feel. There is also an LED counter which gauges the real time that has passed and is effective at creating a sense of formal urgency.

The third Act sees Electra encounter Orestes at their father’s grave and it is quickly clear that mourning does not become this Electra. She persuades her brother to revenge their father by slaughtering their mother. Or does she? Is she just a figment of Orestes’ demented, frenzied mind post his slaying of his mother? In the end, here, save for the point discussed above, it matters little. The action moves on, past the insinuation of Aegisthus into Klytemnestra’s life and inexorably to their double murder.

Then the production shifts gear and moves into Courtroom mode, as Orestes is put on trial. The tonal shift is sudden and works to disorient – the audience feels as Orestes must feel – bewildered, uncertain, on edge. The goddess Athene sits in judgment so it is instantly clear that there is no mucking about here. (Hara Yannas, unintelligible but nevertheless a remarkable Cassandra in Act Two, is superb as the majestic, judicial Athene). Thompson’s Orestes is overwhelmed by the enormity of what is happening to him; Thompson plays a blinder here: compelling in every way. He knows how to use his voice to good effect and acts with intensity, from core to finger-tips, bristling with complexity.

Indeed, the entire cast are at the top of their form in this scene. The heady excess and rule-bound formality of the Courtroom permits economical, forceful acting; advocates speak not just as advocates but as the spectres of the parts they have played in earlier Acts. And Annie Firbank, as the lone Fury seeking blind justice is spookily sublime, twice sightlessly circumnavigating the multi-level stage, evoking the notion of the wheels of justice turning slowly.

There is a point where the audience held its collective breath. Was this going to be interactive? Were they really going to ask us to pass judgment? The woman next to me muttered “Guilty” under her breath, but the couple behind thought otherwise. Actually, it might have been better had Icke made the audience choose. The result could be pre-ordained but the process of choosing might have been truly illuminating.

The final images of Thompson’s Orestes, still dressed in clothes drenched in his mother’s blood, newly acquitted, a free man, plaintively asking “What do I do?” repeatedly, are provocative and shattering. He might be free but he has to live with himself; a fate, perhaps, worse than death.

A huge load here lies on the shoulders of Angus Wright (Agamemnon/Aegisthus) and Lia Williams (Klytemnestra). After the first Act, both get away with their roles, but neither really seems centred enough, impressive enough, or torn asunder enough to give full measure. Wright is best as Aegisthus and in the trial scene; he is too thin and gangly to convince as the gruff warmonger with the physical presence and stamina to sack Troy, and while he has a powerful and sonorous voice, he shouts too much, and does not use pace, pause and pitch sufficiently to maintain and incite interest, particularly in the enervating first Act.

Williams is sleek and cunning, but there is a gravitas, a core-of-being ruthlessness, which eludes her. Needing to be both more earthy and ritualistic, Williams’ Klytemnestra is so modern and mannered that the brutal rage which sustains and overwhelms her never really comes into full focus. She shouts too much as well.

Hildegard Bechtler transforms the Almedia space completely with a stylish and chic design that evokes power and family, ritual and rhetoric. A huge working bath serves almost as a sacrificial altar and later Athene sits atop it in judgment on Orestes. Moving panels which can be either transparent or opaque allow for a multitude of spaces and images to be in play at one time. A family table is almost ever-present, symbolising the importance of family ties to the action and, later, the loss and ache that empty tables suggest.  There are four sturdy Grecian pillars to ground the present in the past. It’s a wonderfully fluid and clinical set – a place where anything can happen.

But this Oresteia does go on. There is no excuse for the length of the first Act. Icke needs to cut material, tell the story cleanly, crisply and without extraneous verbiage. More lyricism and less verbose irrelevancy would see about an hour shaved off this piece, which would improve it immeasurably, allow its pulsating heart to really throb.

In an essay in the programme, Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek at Cambridge University and consultant to the production says:

“The danger for any work when it becomes a classic is that it remains under aspic, an out-of-date dish admired out of duty. Aeschylus’ Oresteia is undoubtedly one of the greatest works of western culture, but it needs continual and active re-engagement with its immense potential to make it speak with its true insistence and power. All translators are traitors, but some traitors turn out to be liberators who let us recalibrate what matters, and see the world from a startlingly new perspective.”

No doubt that is so. Robert Icke, however, seems more an alchemist than a liberator. He has turned Aeschylus into something quite different, definitely modern and occasionally thrilling. Reshaping Aeschylus into a different image is not the same as liberating or illuminating a classic text.

It will be interesting to see if Icke, as Aeschylus did about 2,400 years ago, wins any prizes for this “adaptation” of Oresteia. Cassandra would probably say he will.

Oresteia runs at the Almeida Theatre until 18 July 2015

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