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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Iphigenia Quartet
Gate Theatre   Spring 2016

The Gate Theatre commissioned 40-minute plays inspired by the story of Iphigenia from four playwrights and is presenting them in two programs of two plays each on alternate nights (or matinee and evening). 

Quick reminder: with the Greek fleet becalmed and unable to attack Troy, general Agamemnon is told the gods will only give him a wind if he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. 

All four plays go over the same plot material, with their titles – Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia and Chorus – suggesting their differences in focus. 

Some common patterns are striking. All four set the story in modern dress, with modern characterizations. Iphigenia herself appears in only two of them, while two are more interested in the effect of the story on others than in the principals. And only one offers even grudging sympathy to Agamemnon. 

Program One is made up of Caroline Bird's Agamemnon and Lulu Razoka's Clytemnestra. 

The first is really a study in how a leader is driven by those he supposedly leads. Agamemnon decides not to make the sacrifice, but the bloodthirsty troops, whipped up in a frenzy of patriotism by Menelaus, would only slaughter the girl themselves, along with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, if he doesn't. 

Sympathy for him is limited by the awareness that he got himself into this mess, and by the fact that the play is at least equally interested in the female soldier who represents all the others in her blind loyalty to whatever cause she is told to defend.

In Lulu Raczka's Clytemnestra two modern figures, a film director and a literature professor, each stumble in their semi-comic ways to the realisation that the key moment of the story comes as Clytemnestra is locked out of the temple where her daughter is being killed. 

Her thoughts and feelings as a woman, a mother and ultimately an avenger are the real story, both thematically and as emotional spine of a movie. 

That provocative insight is then partly undercut by the accounts of a soldier and housemaid who were actually there and can see no meaning in what they witnessed. 

The alternate evening pairs Iphigenia, by Suhayla El-Bushra, with Chris Thorpe's Chorus. 

El-Bushra finally brings the girl herself to the fore as a believably moody teenager with a brutish father and ineffectual mother. She insists on the sacrifice in the same spirit in which she briefly flirted with anorexia, as an opportunity to take some control over some part of her life. 

At the same time we see that she is limited by a naive conception of honour and patriotism coloured by her father's empty rhetoric and that her noble act will be co-opted and abused in his political self-mythologising. 

Chris Thorpe's Chorus imagines a worldwide community of bloggers, hackers and forum-posters united by the kind of half-adoring and half-resenting celebrity worship that characterised the Diana frenzy of two decades ago. 

With the ability to access CCTV cameras and private e-mails anywhere, and to share information instantly, they know everything about the story, even if filtering it through their hunger for sensation and limited sensibility warps it all. 

Less about the Iphigenia story than the angry satire of modern culture, it is the weakest of the four, making its point very quickly and therefore seeming over-extended even at 40 minutes.

Separate directors for each of the four plays – in order, Christopher Haydon, Jennifer Tang, Rebecca Hill and Elayce Ismail – each sensitively find the emotional core of their plays and the performance style best suited to it. 

Two casts of four are in one play in each program – that is, whichever night you go, you'll see all eight actors – with Louise McMenemy as the soldier in the first play and Shannon Tarbet as Iphigenia in the third standing out.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review -  Iphigenia Quartet - Gate Theatre 2016

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