Traditional productions of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, with all their pomp and pageantry, can often lose sight of the trilogy’s essentials amongst spectacle. The searing, elemental themes of the work can be obscured by inconsequential ornament. Emotion and energy too often give way to extravagance.
It is not so with Robert Icke’s adaptation for the Almeida’s Greek Season, currently running at Trafalgar Studios after a high-profile transfer from Islington to the West End. Stripped-back, stylish and superb, this is Greek tragedy as it should be. It thrills, it shocks, it scares and most importantly of all, it challenges.
Icke has retained the bare-bones of Aeschylus – the basic plot, the arguments, the situations, the conundrums – but this is a far cry from a standard translation. He has freely played with the original material, removing the chorus, merging characters, adding passages here and removing sections there. His dialogue is modernised – often to the point of colloquialism – and his direction is far from traditional.
Instead of in the streets, temples, and palaces of Ancient Greece, Icke chooses to place the action in a minimalistic 21st Century home – a versatile dining table, a set of heavy sliding doors, and, behind it all, a hulking bathtub. Agamemnon is no longer the warrior-king of Argos, but a suited politician leading his country reluctantly to war. The cursed House of Atreus are no longer presented as royalty, but as a squabbling family around the dinner table. The sacrifice of Iphigeneia – in Aeschylus’ original merely referenced as the cause of Klytemnestra’s fury – is here acted out before the audience in an eye-wateringly intense opening hour.
A discussion of the wider meaning behind these alterations would require several thousand more words, but it is safe to say that there is genius at work here. Icke’s large-scale changes lend the piece a contemporary relevance that burns throughout. Issues of religious faith, gender roles, familial ties, female empowerment and philosophical certainties are raised, along with so, so much more. As death inspires death and blood begets blood, the adaptation excels itself, not only in rendering the audience shell-shocked by through its undiluted power but in bringing these 2500-year-old issues crashing home with a rare immediacy.
Lia Williams has gained much praise for her visceral portrayal of Klytemnestra, but Angus Wright deserves just as much for his understated Agamemnon. Whereas Williams’ Klytemnestra is imbued with an appropriately visceral rage, convincingly born of her maternal instincts, Wright’s Agamemnon is much more sedate, much more solemn. He is every bit the beleaguered politician – articulate, divided, and commanding and his death at the hands of Klytemnestra is yet another stomach-churningly exquisite moment of drama. Elsewhere, Jessica Brown Findlay – of Downton Abbey fame – is an enjoyably sulky Electra and Luke Thompson is a competent, if melodramatic, Orestes.
If there is one thing wrong with this Oresteia, it is that it is sometimes slightly overstuffed with ideas. Icke’s imagination runs through it like a turbulent river, forever trying something else, forever experimenting. The deceased characters that frequently return, the ear-splitting music, the flashes, the bangs, the bells and the whistles, although undeniably effective to begin with, all begin to feel a little gratuitous towards the end, and something of the piece’s meatiness is lost. The concept of framing the first two parts of the trilogy – Agmemnon and The Libation Bearers – as extended flashbacks of the third – Eumenides – is original, but fundamentally superfluous. Likewise, the treatment of the entire play as a forensic examination of Orestes’ memory is interesting, but only briefly so.
Despite this, Icke’s Oresteia remains a formidable four-hours of high-quality drama. There are two truly memorable performances from Williams and Wright, several moments of such unbearable tension that leave audience members so weak-kneed as to require a walking stick come the interval, and so many ideas and innovations that the intimidating running time passes in a flash. Most importantly of all though, Icke has succeeded in making Aeschylus’ work accessible, without compromising its power to thrill or to provoke thought. This is Greek Tragedy for the 21st Century. The Greeks, as the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Brooke intended, are well and truly out of the attic.