Oresteia

Posted on: 24 June 2015 by Laurence Green

2500 year-old epic trilogy gets a modern makeover in Robert Icke’s powerful reimagining of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia (Almeida Theatre), marking the start of a season of classic Greek theatre.

Oresteia

This work sees an eminent family torn apart by jealousy and murder, the consequences of which can be felt over later generations. War hero Agamemnon has to face up to the wrath of his wife Klytemnestra for sacrificing their daughter Iphrenia, so that the nation could be victorious in battle and not fall into the hands of the enemy.

Klytemnestra, though, consumed with grief for her lost child, kills her husband, with the result that their son Orestes is forced to decide whether to avenge his father’s death. But murdering a parent would carries a curse that he would have to carry for years afterwards.

The original plays depict the rituals of family life and the judicial process, together with the difficult decisions they entail. Icke makes this subject matter feel remarkably contemporary, without losing sight of the sheer strangeness of the Greek texts he’s reinvigorating. Spanning more than three and half hours, we’re treated to a taut analysis of justice, retribution and responsibility, punctuated with shocking bursts of violence. Indeed this work asks the pivotal question that has plagued dramatists for over two millennia: can justice ever be served when the cycle of violence is ever continuing?

Icke’s adaptation is particularly impressive. The writing is tightly focused, sparse with occasional touches of lyricism, but mostly tough and serious, while designer Hildegard Bechler makes clever use of technology to evoke the manipulations of the media and finding ingenious ways of matching and updating the original.

Admittedly the production loses energy and momentum in the final act – the trial sequence – but it is here that it is as its most political, making a case as a play for today, discoursing on the nature of justice and the nature of stories and our need to keep reworking and retelling them.

Lisa Williams is a passionate and persuasive as Klytemnestra pummelling her belly as she horrifyingly cries: “This is my child – part of my body”, while Angus Wright memorably expresses the mental anguish of a divided leader and devoted parent as Agamemnon, clinically disposing of his daughter to please the gods. Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay, making her theatrical debut, is a strong-willed Electra, most affecting as she tries to articulate the pain of bereavement and being fatherless. Luke Thompson’s Orestes is a fine study in anguished indecision.

This is indeed a Greek tragedy for the 21st century, rightly leaving us to draw our own conclusions about the shaky premises on which leaders go to war.

 

Oresteia

Runs at the Almeida Theatre until Saturday 18 July 2015.

Box office: 020 7359 4404

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