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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Iphigenia at Aulis
Lyttelton Theatre Summer 2004

One of the most rarely-performed of classical Greek tragedies is given as beautiful and powerful a production as one could imagine, making for one of the most exciting theatrical offerings in London this season.

Euripides' play deals with a piece of the Trojan War myth, when the assembled Greek forces are about to embark for Troy and the goddess Artemis demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. 

As Euripides presents it, the general discovers that the choice is not his - having been charged up to fight this war, the army will mutiny if deprived of the chance to go. And so his own abhorrence of the goddess's demand,  the pleas of his wife and daughter, and the opposition of Achilles are all helpless against the inevitable. (There is a deus ex machina twist at the very end, but it doesn't really affect the play's meaning or power.)

On one level, then, the play has a strong antiwar message, warning of how militarism can take on an unstoppable life of its own (Euripides wrote it in the middle of a war that seemed endless). But translator Don Taylor and director Katie Mitchell have wisely chosen not to stress that aspect - it comes through forcefully enough on its own.

Instead, they give us the very human-sized and modern-feeling story of a family caught in an unfolding tragedy they cannot seem to escape. In this modern-dress (well, actually roughly 1940s) production, Ben Daniels plays Agamamnon as a celebrity politician, a minor-league John Kennedy type who has gotten by up to now on his good looks and who has bitten off more than he can chew by getting himself chosen commander of the combined Greek forces.

He is even less equipped to handle the moral and emotional crisis the goddess's demand throws him into. Daniels shows us a man floundering from the moment he first sets foot onstage and thus, remarkably, keeps him from becoming the villain of the piece.

The evening really belongs to Kate Duchene's Clytemnestra. Tricked into bringing her daughter here with the promise of a marriage to Achilles, she enters as a cool and efficient aristocrat, one of the ladies who lunch, handling the logistics of their 28 suitcases and 9 trunks with unruffled authority. And then she discovers why they're really there.

I've admired Kate Duchene's work since seeing her in student productions two decades ago, and it would be nice if this is the performance that makes her a real star. Her special ability is to make every line sound as if spoken for the first time and as the product of intelligent thought.

When her Clytemnestra turns on her husband and essentially asks him if he's gone mad, she talks absolute sense with the force that being right brings; and when she breaks down and pleads abjectly for her daughter's life, you can still tell that she is doing so from a clear perception that she's the only sane person there.

And when that doesn't work, Duchene goes places I haven't seen her go before, taking us into the truly frightening as she expresses almost speechlessly the mother's unbearable outrage, terror and despair.

Hattie Morahan isn't given much to do as Iphegenia except look terrified  (which she does movingly) through most of the play, until she perhaps-too-suddenly becomes very brave and prepared to face her fate. Justin Salinger introduces Achilles as a shallow egotist more offended that his name was used as bait than concerned for the girl's life, but then lets him rediscover his sense of honour and live up to his heroic reputation.

Some of the production's most effective and evocative elements come from the updating. The Chorus becomes a ferryload of nicely individualised women tourists who have come to ogle the soldiers and who stumble into the room in which the king's private tragedy is being acted out. Alternately fascinated - they can't help pulling out their autograph books every time a new celebrity enters - appalled and embarrassed, they very nicely serve the classical function of the Chorus as our surrogates onstage.

And Katie Mitchell has come up with one especially lovely effect. We know that the original Greek Chorus moved or danced in some way, though we don't know how. Mitchell has dance band music come out of a radio every once in a while, and the Chorus begin synchronised ballroom dancing. It makes no realistic sense (are they embarrassed? trying to fit in? mesmerised?) but it is curiously evocative and magical, exactly as it should be.

It doesn't all work. There's a little too much use of lights suddenly going on or off, or of the offstage sound of slamming doors, mainly to scare the Chorus. Near the end, when Iphigenia asks the Chorus to sing a hymn to Artemis and they go into 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' you have to suppress the impulse to giggle. And when she is ritually washed for the sacrifice, she comes out looking a bit too much like the loser in a wet T-shirt competition.

But those are very small cavils. Strong acting, sensitive direction and inventive staging make this a deeply moving human tragedy.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Iphigenia at Aulis - National 2004