LONDON (Reuters) - A new production of Aeschylus’s “Oresteia” transforms the 2,500-year-old text into a riveting and relevant drama for today’s theatregoers through its technological innovations, fast-paced dialogue and sharp focus on a chronically dysfunctional family.
Using video cameras and digital clocks and featuring moody teenagers, slick lawyers and evasive politicians, Robert Icke’s nearly four-hour long version of the tragic trilogy seems to be anchored in our own time, not in some mythic Greek past.
And that, says Rupert Goold, artistic director at London’s Almeida Theatre where the “Oresteia” has just opened and will play until July 18, is precisely the point.
“We believe that the work we present must be alive and resonant, as far away as possible from being dusty cultural heritage,” he said.
By interpreting the “Oresteia” in ways accessible to a modern audience, he said, they are just following the example of Aeschylus himself who reworked myths already old and hoary in his own time to pose big questions about society and family, religion and politics, justice and revenge.
(“Oresteia”) is the original family drama to which all subsequent family dramas can trace back their frameworks and rhythms ... It’s big, bloody and essential,” Goold said.
First performed in 458 BCE, the “Oresteia” has a bloody plot: father kills daughter, mother kills father, son kills mother, is chased by furies and put on trial. Finally, when the jury is split, son escapes death thanks to the casting vote of the judge, the goddess Athene, who breaks the cycle of revenge.
Although this production retains plentiful allusions to the ancient world of gods and portents - including a dream in which two eagles tear apart a pregnant hare - the characterization and the set, with a family dining table as its centrepiece, are intended to convey a strong sense of everyday familiarity.
At the start, a happy family, including child actors, admiringly watch the father Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Greeks in the Trojan War, being interviewed by a TV journalist about leadership, religion and war.
Agamemnon, his image beamed on television screens, speaks of the need for the Greeks to strike first before their enemy can attack, in language that recalls the arguments used by Western leaders in favour of a “preventative war” against Iraq in 2003.
Ever the politician, Agamemnon argues that the end justifies the means, even if his own daughter Iphigenia must be sacrificed, in a chillingly clinical scene involving lethal drugs, to appease the gods and buy social order and eventual victory in war. “The child is the price,” he declares.
His wife Clytemnestra, in a harrowing performance from Lia Williams, becomes a furious instrument of revenge for Iphigenia’s death, striking her stomach and screaming: “This is my child, part of my body”.
Orestes, the indecisive son constantly quizzed by a shrink, is finally goaded by his sister Electra into slaying their mother and her lover Aegisthus.
In an unusual dramatic twist, the same actor, Angus Wright, plays both Agamemnon, the father Orestes reveres, and Aegisthus.
In the final act, the theatre becomes a courtroom and the audience a jury, though we also realise there are widely differing versions of what has been played out.
As the lights dim, Orestes - cleared of the charges against him but still in torment - asks repeatedly “What do I do?”
There is no answer, which is why the tragedy is fated to be played over and over again.
(Gareth Jones is a Senior Editor in Charge for Reuters in London. The views expressed are his own.)
Reporting by Gareth Jones; Editing by Michael Roddy and Tom Heneghan