Sunday 7 June 2015

Oresteia at the Almeida, or, Something of a Trial for All Concerned

Note: This is a review of a preview performance on Wednesday 3rd June 2015. The Press Night took place on Friday 5th June 2015.

There's a moment in Act 4 of this performance, by which point Orestes is being tried for his crimes, when the judge (representing an interminable list of Gods) asks the audience (we are clearly intended to think of ourselves as part of the court) whether they have any objections. It was mainly the fact that the performance had by then been going on for some 3hrs and 15mins that restrained me from responding.

Robert Icke here performs fairly radical surgery on Aeschylus's three plays in order to get them into one evening (it does not even so justify its 3.5hr+ running time). But he is also, as a number of other recent London versions of the Greeks have been, concerned to assert the work's modernity. In Act One particularly, Icke was I thought determinedly trying to make us draw parallels between Agamemnon and the Trojan War and recent Blair/Bush escapades in the Middle East. To me it felt forced, and, moreover, it doesn't altogether fit with what I recall about the original narrative – which is to say that the Greeks are not about to be attacked by the Trojans, but that the sacrifice of Iphigenia is to secure fair winds for their strike against Troy in retaliation for their abduction of Helen – all of this backstory has been deleted. This is far from the only deletion/addition, but the overall effect, as will be explained, is ambivalent. The biggest change is that Icke spends the whole first act (1hr 10 mins) to get us to the death of Iphigenia – a sequence of events that takes place before Aeschylus's plays even start. Yes, okay, I take the point that this can be seen as the origin of all the woe in the family that follows – but this only works if you clearly establish the link from that death to Klytemnestra's actions, and Icke creates an almost precisely opposite effect. All we see, until she eventually kills him (by which point and despite knowing the story well I was beginning to doubt whether she actually would) is someone who is accepting of the death of her daughter and appears to have forgiven her husband. Now you can argue Klytemnestra is being a very good actress concealing her true motivations from everybody, but if she also conceals those completely from the audience such that her killing of Agamemnon seems to come from nowhere then as drama, it's a failure. Another contributory factor here is the decision to largely write out Aegisthus – he only appears after Agamemnon has been murdered and is then played by the same actor – such that I rather suspect anyone not knowing the original would have been not a little confused by where he had come from and what his role in events was. Icke tries to get round this by implying that we are seeing all this through the eyes of Orestes who was unclear on those points. It is not a convincing decision.

Another effect of this version is that much of the poetry of the original is lost – indeed it is almost as if there are two different plays going on. The fragmented modern version of Icke, and occasional longer speeches that sound much more akin to the original, but feel out of place in the dominant world Icke has established and thus, mostly, lose their punch despite the best efforts of the cast.

Icke also makes one larger framing decision which is to see all the earlier events as if they are being given as evidence in the trial of Orestes. There are some highly irritating devices used to support this – an electronic display screen gives times of death in real time and identifies exhibits (using the Greek alphabet), and intervals are both announced to the audience and counted down by the second via the display screen (even the wholly unnecessary 3 minute pause between the 3rd and 4th Acts). Could we now ban such display screens from the stage? – I can't think of a single occasion when I've seen one used and thought it added anything. Aside from these, the idea (if you're determined to condense the plays into one evening) is not a bad one, but the trouble also is that Icke doesn't wholly follow it through. The narrative of events leading up to Iphigenia's death doesn't feel sufficiently as if it is taking place in the court room, nor do those long speeches which do survive feel convincing as elements of Orestes's memory. In the end Icke's interventions are both too radical and not radical enough. The show falls between two stools.

The staging is also uneven. The set is spare – white table and benches, a corridor between two sets of sliding doors (which can be rendered opaque or see-through depending on requirements) and beyond that a third area containing the bath. Icke's use of the corridor and sudden blackouts recalls his production of 1984 but they don't work so well here. The repetition of things like the family dinner is I suspect supposed to draw on traditions of ritual in these plays, and to emphasise the repetition of the narrative, but I found it tedious rather than tension creating. There are annoyingly obvious devices like the persistent spilling of red wine on the white tablecloth – yes, I know, blood is about to be shed, did the point really have to be made quite so obviously and quite so often? Attempts are also made to play up physical interaction between the characters, which again sort of seem to recall dance elements often seen in productions of these works, but again slow down the performance without compensatory benefits. Finally, Icke makes some bizarre decisions about what to show, the most obvious being to have Iphigenia killed by poison centre stage. Death is very difficult to bring off, and I'm afraid the young actress in this case, in as small a space as the Almeida is, simply didn't convince me she was dead. It isn't the actress's fault, Icke has given her a near impossible task which he would have been far better advised not to have attempted. Finally, Icke has an unfortunate tendency to direct his performers to scream lines at crucial points. It fails to convince as extreme emotion – as so often less would have been more.

All of this is a pity because generally speaking the quality of the individual performances is high, but the version in which they are embedded largely robs them of the impact they should have. Angus Wright's Agamemnon is the most fully formed and effective. Luke Thompson's Orestes tries hard to make Icke's restructuring work but isn't quite able to bring it off. Annie Firbank's servant has some nice moments – particularly her recognition, perhaps, of Orestes and I'd have liked to see more of Rudi Dharmalingam who does good work in the opening scene but largely disappears thereafter.

I rather wondered when the Almeida announced its Greek season whether London really needed more reinventions of these plays, of which we have had quite a few in recent times. Of the three, however, the Oresteia seemed the most justifiable as that hasn't been seen here for some years. Unfortunately, this is another in what has been a run of poor shows at the venue. An overlong, ineffective evening.

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