I see him put the paper final cup onto her lips. He tips the liquid into her mouth. He clasps her tightly, she swallows. Agamemnon is now guilty of poisoning his daughter Iphigenia. I brace myself for the minute that I’m about to endure. I take a deep breath and wait for the chill to slowly crawl down from the nape of my neck to my temples and then down my arms as he cradles her. But the shiver doesn’t come. He helplessly strokes down her legs administering the last caresses to a body that has been consigned to death. There’s no visible slump in the little body but I know exactly when it happens. I’m oddly serene and feel complicit. It had to happen. I have seen it happen before.
Robert Icke’s Oresteia has just transferred from the Almeida, where it launched the theatre’s ambitious Greek season, to the Trafalgar Studios and while it has lost nothing of its edge-of-the-seat tension throughout the near 4 hour running time, on second viewing the visceral impact of the piece has cooled considerably. Now, from underneath its slick surfaces and modern take on the text, the intricate wiring of its dramaturgical engine emerges.
At the beginning is a divine prophesy about the sacrifice of a child for the greater good and the detestable consequences it causes: a father killing his daughter, the mother killing her husband as revenge. Then, more grief, more killings. All the while Orestes, the traumatised son of the tragic couple, is put on trial for matricide and grapples with his guilt. The show switches back and forth between the main story of the demise of the house and a therapy-like confrontation with a doctor as Orestes tries to uncover who exactly is to blame for it all. It’s a playback of Orestes memory I see in front of me. Icke, together with dramaturg Duska Radosavljevic, have wound the themes of masculinity and violence, self-narration and guilt, women and crime into a tight spool of inevitability. Not just a play about a family curse but a play that also has the structure of the curse, haunting this viewer with what-ifs and sinister foreshadowing. As it all slowly uncoils again I too like Luke Thompson’s haunted Orestes can feel absolution dangling right in front of eyes. But what this family’s house has gone through can’t be neatly stashed away into boxes of right and wrong.
Angus Wright’s Agamemnon is a gaunt-looking man who at the beginning of the piece has had all joy sapped out of him by a looming decision. He is a devoted father who clings on to domestic rituals while knowing very well that he will have to put his public office over his family to win the war with Troy. When he returns after years his wife is initially forced to put up a brave front. Lia Williams is simply stunning when her Clytemnestra finally gets her revenge in a spectacularly gory outburst of bloodlust. Heaving, arms flailing and screeching unbearably loud as if when she cut her husband’s flesh open the valve was opened to release years of pent-up resentment.
Hildegard Bechtler’s design superimposes a visual clarity onto all of this slowly unravelling moral mess. Wide, rectangular glass panels that are moveable and switch between transparent and opaque reach all across the stage. Private life and public life are clearly separated through broadcasted video projections that are transmitted onto screens in the auditorium. On second viewing the constant opening and closing of the huge sliding doors becomes much more prominent. It’s a hide and seek with Orestes’ unreliable memories. Already dead figures reappear in nightmarish flickers in the background and might join in with the main action. Specks of red clothing and liquid speckled throughout serve as a constant reminder of the bloodshed that has happened and that is yet to come. The slightly steeper raking of the audience seating at the Trafalgar Studios makes some of these concepts a little less effective. The way the final court room scene uses the layered mirroring surfaces of the panels to reflect the audience onto the stage and the judge into the audience is still very impressive.
As I try to unpick motivations and determine whether the curse could have been broken and which signs could have been interpreted differently along the way I keep hitting a wall and am quite literally reflected back onto myself. It’s a frustratingly unresolved cascade of events and there seems only one way to overcome the fatalistic pull of history. There is not one side to come down on. I must always hold two judgments in my head to keep on breathing. There must always be two possible outcomes even though I know that Iphigenia is going to die on her father’s lap. I’ve seen it before.