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The Theatreguide.London Review

Oresteia
Almeida Theatre  Summer 2015; Trafalgar Studios Autumn 2015

The Almeida Theatre opens an extended season of Greek tragedies with Robert Icke's production of his own audacious and largely remarkably successful free adaptation of the granddaddy of them all, Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy. 

Though there is talk of the gods and an ever-present supernatural element to Icke's modern-dress version, it is less grand tragedy than psychological drama. But any loss in epic stature is more than made up for by the intensity and reality of the human experiences that Icke finds in the tale of murder, revenge and counter-revenge. 

Not satisfied with Aeschylus's trilogy, that begins with Agamemnon's return from the Trojan War and murder by his wife Klytemnestra (followed by her death at the hands of their son Orestes and his Olympian trial for that killing), Icke turns to other sources for a prequel, and the first act of his play deals with Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to get the war started.

Icke filters the entire action through a frame in which what appears to be a psychiatrist guides the traumatised adult Orestes to recover repressed memories, each nudge by her moving the onstage action forward. 

So whatever other dramatic events are going on at any moment, we are always partly aware of the painful struggle between remembering and avoiding memories within Luke Thompson's Orestes. 

And that psychological drama sets the pattern and tone for the rest. The Iphigenia section of the story focuses on the immense and unquestionably sincere struggle within Angus Wright's Agamemnon to find some convincing reason beyond his natural emotions to spare his beloved daughter, and on the beginnings of what will become murderous hatred in Lia Williams' Klytemnestra, which drives and colours the second act. 

The next act centres, as in Aeschylus, on the desperate hunger for vengeance in Jessica Brown Findlay's Electra (about whom there will later be a surprising and not particularly convincing revelation of Icke's invention), and finally comes the torment of Orestes as he feels himself judged for avenging his father. 

Throughout there are unobtrusive modern touches – Iphigenia's death is by way of almost ritualised assisted-suicide poisoning, and the family conduct their public lives in front of TV cameras. 

Only in the final act, where Icke's attempt to find a replacement for the original's cosmic court of gods and furies is too obscure and evasive to be evocative, does the adapter's construct break down, leaving the evening to limp to a conclusion rather than ending as strongly as it was at its best. 

(I really do have to note as well that the running time comes perilously close to four hours, so it may be partly exhaustion of the audience's capacity for concentration that makes things seem to slip downhill toward the end.) 

If we very rarely feel the pity and awe of high tragedy in Robert Icke's text or his production, we are repeatedly moved by the human moments – Agamemnon's moral and emotional struggle in a no-win dilemma and his emotional deadness afterwards, Klytemnestra's subtle demonstration of her new power by proving more comfortable in media manipulation than her husband, Electra's loneliness dramatised in touching scenes with her father's ghost, Orestes' painful process of remembering. 

It should go without saying that the power of these moments is largely due to the sensitive and emotionally naked performances of the actors, who are impeccable.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Oresteia  - Almeida Theatre 2015  
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