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Girl on an Altar

Marina Carr
Kiln Theatre in partnership with the Abbey Theatre
Kiln Theatre

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David Walmsley as Agamemnon and Eileen Walsh as Clytemnestra Credit: Peter Searle
Kate Stanley-Brennan as Cilissa and Eileen Walsh as Clytemnestra Credit: Peter Searle
Daon Broni as Aegisthus and David Walmsley as Agamemnon Credit: Peter Searle
Jim Findley as Tyndareus, Kate Stanley-Brennan as Cilissa, Eileen Walsh as Clytemnestra and Nina Bowers as Cassandra Credit: Peter Searle
David Walmsley as Agamemnon and Eileen Walsh as Clytemnestra Credit: Peter Searle

The girl on the altar is Iphigenia, daughter of Argive King Agamemnon, a ten-year-old sacrificed to placate the gods and to raise a wind that will send the Greek fleet off on its way to Troy.

Marina Carr’s retelling of that ancient story and of its aftermath ten years later when the Great King returns to Mycenae differs from the more familiar classical versions. Her Agamemnon is not worried about wind but by the threat to his power as Zeus-Agamemnon and events on his return don’t feature the instant reprisal of Aeschylus’ version.

Girl on an Altar is beautifully written and a briefly rehearsed reading that the Kiln produced online last year made one eager to see a full production. Now we get that chance, well cast and stylishly mounted.

Played out on Tom Piper’s mist-wreathed black set with chinks of light glimpsed through its slatted walls, great doors to the rear sliding open to reveal a golden inner space and, for bold silhouetted entries, its gravelly floor sometimes swept by a video torrent, but dominating all this a great bed, for this savage story is a marital tragedy.

David Walmsley’s Agamemnon, grittily masculine, sees Colchis’s oracular interpretation demanding Iphigenia’s sacrifice as a ploy to destabilise his authority at the start of a military campaign that is not about getting back his brother’s wife Helen but expanding his empire and sources of wealth. Though he comes from a dynasty marked by a history of child-killers he loves his daughter; but love must give place to necessity.

He comes back from Troy with a prisoner, prophetess Princess Cassandra, whom he’s taken to his bed. He expects that to be accepted, but equally accepts that, in his ten-year absence, his wife has had a lover, his cousin Aegisthus.

Clytemnestra can’t forgive him for killing their daughter but his return rekindles old passions. Eileen Walsh makes her intelligent and controlled, but you know that she still feels the trauma of snatching her dying daughter from the altar and will never forget watching her husband’s war dance.

Girl on an Altar flows seamlessly between narrative and dialogue: dialogue for private and domestic exchange will turn to description of situation or action. While the writing has an epic quality, her characters are great observers of detail: Clytemnestra notes the new wounds her husband has suffered, Agamemnon the flared nostrils of Achilles.

Clytemnestra’s handmaid, Amazon freed slave Cilissa (Kate Stanley Brennan), helps tell the story; Trojan Cassandra (Nina Bowers) her red and white dress markedly different from Argolid fashion, makes her own contribution. So does Daon Broni’s Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover during her husband’s absence, another marked as foreign by his suiting; while her father Tyndareus describes his own arrival in Mycenae.

These narrative passages, directed straight to the audience, are evocative and powerful on the page and in the mind’s eye. Director Annabelle Comyn stages them in stillness but against a powerful setting (and needing more light on the eyes of those speaking to create the connection), they don’t seem so powerful while, when the action on stage does become physical, the effect becomes especially striking.

This is a story that in the form of its ancient retellings has a firm place in the theatrical canon; in London we have just seen Ivo van Hove’s version Age of Rage and Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City is running in Woolwich, but Carr isn’t just retelling an old story. This feels like a new one. It isn’t just about toxic testosterone and the treatment of women; it looks at a marriage like studying an open sore, taking things to extremities as savage as any ancient version, a tragedy indeed for every one of its characters.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton