I didn’t like Robert Icke’s new Oresteia as much as I hoped I would. It has some fine moments, but it is inconsistent in delivering them. Worse, it suffers from a drastic crisis: in updating the Ancient drama and in removing the supernatural and favouring the domestic, it etiolates it of its true force.
We like to think we are more discerning than “the Ancients” were, less reliant on “magical thinking”, less given to myth, prophecy, fate and most of the characters express this. The trouble here is that precisely these attitudes (submission to gods, husband, polis) were fundamental to Greek experience, and woven into warp and weft of daily life. As such, drama from Aeschylus time could only operate within those structures, to express and as in the Oresteia, propagate them.
Icke realises this and what he has produced is largely an atheist’s play for an atheist age, which is fatal for its success. The religious is here old-fashioned and irrational, placed in opposition to evidentiary thinking. The divine is stripped out, and the domestic brought to the fore. To be sure, there is domestic drama in Aeschylus, because the palace was both a family home as well as seat of power, but this domestic drama is not domesticated or tamed. It is the domestic in service of the expressing of a worldview. Here, instead all is more earthbound and contingent, and less for it.
Thus, The Furies should terrify,* and so too, the Eumenides should move us by force of their manumission and benisons. The murder of Iphegenia should shock in its (offstage) violence and then move us in sorrow. A friend said the intent was to sanitize her death (she dies via lengthily explained barbiturate poisoning: Dignitas for kids) but the problem is, Icke has sanitised too much. We don’t get this classical force.
As a result the play Agamemnon – aiming to become psychological here becomes a bit of a soap opera, the Libation Bearers – heavily truncated – becomes a episode of hallucination (here it is suggested that Elektra doesn’t even exist, even though we’ve been shown her earlier!) and the Eumenides becomes twelve angry Greeks (or rather, eight or so people dressed in robes pretending to be in a divine court). The court scene itself is just pantomime of modern justice. Exhibits are presented. Evidence asked for. Sublime judges using human method brought the sublime force of the drama crashing to earth*.
As a detail I realised that without any reference to divine curse, one loses the full force of Agamemnon’s hamartia and hubris: Killing Iphigenia can only be an affront to Clytemnestra, and not an expression of the house’s ancient suffering. The import of walking over the purple carpet didn’t work because we aren’t told it is taboo (more “voodoo thinking” Icke has to remove, at cost of plot), even though Angus Wright’s Agamemnon looked properly conflicted over doing so. I wanted that awful feeling of Fate which lurks in the play, and comes bursting out at the Furies but I didn’t get it,
Instead the play of Agamemnon here becomes like one of those philosophical problems: do you kill one person to save a thousand? do you switch a track on a railroad to kill one baby but save a city? In the original and if I recall correctly, there wasn’t really a question, Agamemnon knew he had to do it. Harsh action, and harsh sorrow because of it. As Kierkegaard wrote, sorrow outweighs pain in Greek tragedy, and sorrow is the main feeling one feels reading Greek tragedy, or a great play like Hamlet. But as a civilisation, a society, we shy away from sorrow in plays, preferring pain (Miller’s lauded View from the Bridge is pain only, with little relevant to say.) Here there is pain (at Iphie’s murder for example) but little sorrow. As with the best opera, one hopes for a different outcome for those we are watching, but like the gods, we know things might not go well for them.
So too, some of the subject matter is problematic: the ancient curse’s lineage of horrors is largely ignored, even though it is the prime motive force in the plays, and people talk a bit too much about chance and forks in roads, about faith versus evidence, things which are very far from Aeschylus’s concerns.
These aren’t the only false notes of the evening. Some lines are ridiculous in and of themselves. There is mention of “primal fluid that senses the future” (?). Clytemnestra says feeling Agamemnon’s blood on her skin was like “liquid rightness”. She wants to open herself up “like a plant” to it*. She wants to “ride it” again – the thrill of his slaying. Orestes says he has “gone off-road” which could be a charming reference to Attic lawlessness and brigandry (the wilds are dangerous) and to paths and destiny, but instead invoked images of rally driving. Clytemnestra suffers from “fatal exsanguination” in a narrated autopsy scene which was unnecessary. There’s some big clunkers and a lot of waffle.
A scholar has been brought on board to help. There are therefore nods to classical themes, mostly subtle. Iphigenia refuses to eat the venison put before her: a reference perhaps to when Agamemnon angered Artemis by killing one of her sacred deer. The metaphors of nets is retained but stripped of its Grecian relevance and here just another modern object it feels a little overused: nets are variously, city states and confederacies, fears of traps, references to the maritime culture of these Greeks, and some other stuff, nets out of the ears. Waffle: a character says the “mind is a civilisation*” which sounds impressive, but that’s all it does, it has been put there for sounding good, but it doesn’t serve a purpose other than to make us think “oh, Greeks! civilisation!”. It wouldn’t have made sense in Aeschylus time, and it doesn’t make sense now.*
To her credit, Lia Williams did a good job of everything she had to deliver, including the feminist rant Icke has inserted to make his play relevant. Clytemnestra announces that the thrill of his death is that of transgression: the “frail vessel” killing her husband. Quite so, then as now, which is precisely why the Greeks dramatised it and plays like Medea, but again, those weren’t just domestic. The speech was unnecessary.
So too, unnecessary attention, when Icke goes a bit “meta”: Rudi Dharmalingam has to cite evidence for the prosecution at Orestes trial and does so by citing scene and act numbers wherein the murders occurred, which rather broke the spell of the preceeding three hours.
Flashy modernity too in Hildegard Bechtler’s staging, which reminded of Van Hove’s recent View From the Bridge: sleek Ikea furniture and sliding panes of eletroactivated glass which turn opaque at the flick of a switch (and cost a lot of money). Also there was music which bordered on the intrusive quietly underpinning the action. More effective was the use of a live relay camera, which showed what it was shooting, on screens around the auditorium and using a short projector, on the glass panels . These were well deployed for Agamemnon’s victory speech, and Iphie’s death. Natasha Chivers‘ lighting was excellent.
Jessica Brown Findlay’s Elektra started well in the first play but didn’t quite carry the full weight of Libation Bearers for me. She had a tendency to rush her words a little and some ends of words were a bit lost. I know the Almeida is small but I had to strain a bit to hear some of the players especially Dharmalingam who was aiming for reverence but at times was just a bit too quiet. Luke Thompson‘s Orestes was all cowed and hang dog expression but good in interaction with Elektra and in the final play. Angus Wright’s Agamemnon himself needed more grief and didn’t quite convince me of his kingly gravitas. Hara Yanna’s turn as Cassandra was heart-racingly good, her huge rant in Greek amazing in development, power and expression, and perhaps my favourite moment of the night. The moment the favourable wind blew was pretty cool too.
John Mackay as Agamemnon’s brother was given too little to do and Lorna Brown didn’t quite work for me as whatever she was (therapist, doctor, dream-onaut?) she was a little too passive in her interrogation of Orestes, I wanted more of an urgency to know what Orestes had done and why from her.
So too at the end of the show, Orestes is lamenting “what do I do?” after judgement has been passed, his guilt is personal, but Aeschylus’s original is broader, a collective guilt expunged in order to praise the present.
Structurally the piece is unbalanced. Agamemnon is too long, the Libation Bearers too short, and the court scene too CSI. It could easily be trimmed of some of the dialog. Harder would be to re-treat ts concerns: in trying to make the pieces relevant for us they lose their grandeur. Aeschylus can stand unaltered and yet still move us. Humanising these most savage (and yet at the end most healing) of plays was a mistake*.
* how to show them though, is difficult. We are used to computer graphics, maximalist presentations. Annie Firbank shuffling around as Justice/Fury as good but I want the terror of the Furies smelling blood. Again, Icke cannot countenance this, nor could we anymore, so it has to go modern – and fail.
*That said, I did enjoy the appeal to us, the polis, as agents of emerging demos as we were asked to make our judgements on Orestes’ actions.
* the original phrases here have plant based imagery I guess but they are more metaphorical and poetic.
* “The mind is civilisation” would have been more apt perhaps.
* albeit one which had moments of real dramatic power. A flashy and uneven mistake.