Oresteia

Aeschylus, in a new adaptation by Robert Icke
Almeida Theatre

Angus Wright and Lia Williams Credit: Manuel Harlan
Eve Benioff Salama, Lia Williams, Ilan Galkoff & Angus Wright Credit: Manuel Harlan
Ilan Galkoff, Lia Williams, Angus Wright, Eve Benioff Salama and Luke Thompson Credit: Manuel Harlan

All credit to Robert Icke for his ambition in trying to make his audience view Greek tragedy in a new way by modernising and significantly re-writing Oresteia, the first part of the Almeida’s Greeks trilogy.

In fact, he goes further, since the first one-third of the 3¾ hours is effectively taken up by Orestes' backstory, drawing on the themes in Iphigenia in Aulis, which are only briefly covered in Aeschylus’ trilogy.

This section is gripping, showing how Angus Wright in the role of the Agamemnon (which he doubles very successfully with Aegisthus) throws himself into torment as he agonises over a choice between the good of his family and his country.

As anyone with even a modicum of classical knowledge will know, the warrior is obliged to decide like Abraham in the Bible, whether to sacrifice his child, Iphigenia, to win a war.

The choice is made to seem even more relevant and poignant by the use of modern dress and the casting of the tiny Clara Read on opening night to portray a really sweet and innocent Iphigenia.

Witnessed by Bobby Smalldridge as her marginally older, titular brother, a tug of love becomes torrid in the hands of Wright and the terrifyingly angry Lia Williams playing his wife, Klytemnestra.

By the first strictly-timed interval, the audience's emotions have been wrung out even though the plotting has not advanced beyond the hors d'oeuvre.

Once Agamemnon returns weary but triumphant from the battlefield, the remainder of the evening follows an inevitable cycle of familial revenge.

Egged on by Electra, giving the production additional glamour in the form of Downton Abbey favourite Jessica Brown Findlay, who makes a confident stage debut, the dinner table bickering becomes something far worse.

One after another, scores are settled in blood on Hildegard Bechtler's spare, modernist set, until a final trial in which Luke Thompson’s Orestes is forced to face not only a judge and lawyers but his own demons and guilt.

This meditation on Aeschylus's three-play tragedy has much to commend it and the modern setting allows some contemporary issues to be considered, though rarely in any depth.

On the plus side, the visual and aural effects add much to the drama, at times making it more feel like a blockbuster movie than Greek tragedy. In addition, Robert Icke does make issues from thousands of years ago seem relevant today.

Strangely, considering the fact that so much of the original is sacrificed to bring in the Iphigenia story and keep the evening below four hours, the production still feels excessive.

By the end, viewers may well conclude that some serious cutting would have been of considerable benefit as there is a degree of self-indulgence and gimmickry, possibly not helped by Robert Icke's dual role of playwright and director.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher