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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Almeida Theatre


  Eve Benioff Salama, L Williams, Ilan Galkoff and Angus Wright/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

The first chunk of Robert Icke’s electrifying new imagining of Oresteia contains one of the most harrowing scenes I think I’ve ever seen in the theatre. Angus Wright’s tormented Agamemnon gives his young daughter Iphigenia, here barely six years old, a lethal cocktail of drugs and hugs her with agonising tenderness while she dies. The second it’s over he cries out how wrong he was to do it is, how very wrong.
The eagle eyed will notice this scene doesn’t even take place in Aeschylus; it forms part of the back-story instead. Yet in Icke’s radical version, the killing of Iphigenia not only provides a contextual framework for the psychodrama that follows, as each family member avenges the death of the one before, but is the raw, angry, weeping wound at the centre of the trilogy, the wellspring of blood that keeps on spilling almost until the very end.
This is the first production in a season of Greek tragedy revivals at the Almeida, and it’s hard to imagine it getting off to a better start. Questions of morality, of what is right and wrong, of responsibility and freewill hang heavy over this riveting adaptation, effortlessly updated to the present day. Hildegard Bechtler’s eerily classy set, with its slick, sliding screens and bath that looks ominously like a sacrificial altar, could belong inside a thousand modern middle-class homes. Within it Agamemnon and his children squabble round the dinner table like any ordinary family. Yet in a second clever twist, it gradually becomes clear that what we are watching is the trial of Orestes (Luke Thompson) for matricide. His fragmentary memories of the traumas that have destroyed his family and brought him to kill his mother are recounted to a therapist in a series of exchanges that punctuate the main action. His inability to recall exactly what happened and when places the nature of guilt centre stage, rather than the pathology of revenge.
Icke’s radical reboot consistently carves out new emotional space for the characters to inhabit within the confines of the narrative’s inexorable onward momentum. Lia Williams’ magnificent Klytemnestra is perhaps the greatest beneficiary of this approach. Icke gives her plenty of room to challenge the play’s patriarchal orthodoxy that determines a woman’s life is worth less than a man’s. She seems to grow bigger and bigger as she moves from grief-stricken mother to trophy wife to a woman utterly brought down by hate. There are other contemporary insights too. As the men in suits who surround Agamemnon blithely calculate their chances of success in war, Icke ensures we understand there is always a big domestic cost to the waging of a distant conflict.
There are excellent supporting performances from Jessica Brown Findlay as an emotionally febrile Electra, and Thompson as Orestes, whom the court’s eventual non-guilty verdict in the final courtroom scene brings scant consolation. Icke’s adaptation adds a new level of inquiry to this most restlessly questioning of trilogies and in doing so gives it a renewed urgency.


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