An original Oresteia?

Oresteia court room scene

Oresteia performance at the Trafalgar Studios, London. September 2015.

A peculiarity in staging classical tragedies is that they are too frequently judged by how close the performance is to how it would have (supposedly) been in antiquity.

The risk is that this critique consigns these works to connoisseurship, or encourages lifeless museum pieces, and leads to reviews describing “daring” productions that “take us as far from the original as possible.” In fact this focus on reproducing the antique text, stage conventions and scenery, ironically underplays a fundamental element of ancient drama: its audience. Not so in Robert Icke‘s powerful, modern-set reworking of the Oresteia, with the audience cast – through a framing device – to sit as a jury and to witness the play’s events as evidence in court. This structure also convincingly updates the original’s exposition of the transition, via the inauguration of Athens’ first court, the Areopagus, from blood-feud vengeance to justice.

The courtroom frame-structure also helped a rather long (at three and half hours) play to be selective in its focus. Aegisthus’ relations with Clytemnestra became just another (and weak) reason why Orestes felt himself justifiably matricidal, and Electra vanishes entirely upon being revealed in court to be merely Orestes alter-ego, a being conjured out of Orestes own madness resulting from the unbearable responsibility of murdering his mother. Even with such selectivity the play was at times busy with too many ideas, and could not pursue some intriguingly new arguments that were introduced. In the first act, Agamemnon (superbly played by Angus Wright) challenges Clytemnestra’s cosy domestic complicity, which profits from the war-deaths of other mothers’ children. Iphigenia is said to have no future unless the war is won, and so may better die now, and later, the entrance of Cassandra (who truly cannot be understood by the household because she speaks most of her lines in Greek) does perhaps mirror an alternative fate for Iphigenia.

Tending again to modern sensibilities, Clytemnestra (played empathetically by Lia Williams) does not in this version start out as a monster, but is in the first act portrayed as a mother caring for her children, including a blackly-comic family dinner where she and a sulky, teenaged Electra (Jessica Brown Findlay) argue over whether a very young Iphigenia (Cleopatra Dickens), who is refusing to eat her venison, is old enough to be told the truth about the deer’s demise. In Icke’s version, Iphigenia is promoted from being a mere plot device through which the furies drive an already bestial Clytemnestra, to become a character who is on-stage in each act. Williams’ own character-development of Clytemnestra from loving mother to murderous wife offers a masterclass in acting.

This production has been criticised for straying too far from Aeschylus’ original yet, where it does so, the re-working offers an engaging counterpoint to the original script. The association here of Iphigenia as a sacrifice, to be offered to appease Artemis whose deer Agamemnon mistakenly slew, gains pathos through Iphegenia’s own refusal to eat her venison.  This re-working is not always successful – the hunting/netting imagery entwined throughout the original is generally interpreted as crucial to expressing Agamemnon’s hubris and entrapment. In Icke’s adaptation, the metaphor sometimes sits awkwardly: it is critical that Agamemnon is not fury-driven or entrapped, but acts of his own volition, interpreting for himself the signs from gods that it is not clear even exist. Even the Fury, present as a servant in the house from the start, does little to drive the action forwards.  In particular, it is before Agamemnon is approached by Menelaus to kill Iphigenia that he is already steeling himself to the act: in one particularly chilling scene she looks up trustingly at her father, unwittingly baring her throat as he prepares to strangle her with the cord of his bath robe.  Without the hunted/entrapment theme, the key stepping-on-the-carpet scene becomes underplayed and unnecessary: hubris here is the matter of Agamemnon’s decision to act on his own, without recognising that there are limits to such decisions.

Agamemnon’s action in killing Iphigenia first reveals the moral heart of Icke’s play: the limits to an individual’s right and responsibility for their decisions. Clytemnestra becomes more human than beast in her actions to protect and avenge her daughter. Orestes protests that the split jury-verdict cannot come down to one deciding vote, although the judgement that matters most proves to be his own as, deemed innocent by the court, he is sentenced to live with his own guilt – which he cannot bear and has already sent him mad. The winds that arrive following Iphigenia’s death are not evidence that Agamemnon decided rightly; they may only have been coincidence. Even the drugs Agamemnon uses to kill Iphigenia are more usually administered in an execution after a court has passed sentence.

Troubling though, modern justice is found not satisfactory: in the end, as it turns out, it still comes from a world that favours men. It is portrayed as an imperfect process, made up from the myriad decisions of individuals, who each see things differently, and who collectively lack crucial evidence for the decisions they must take. It asks people to try to impose a singular kind of truth on events when no single truth exists. In this, the play holds a vital mirror up to its audience-jury, asks each of us to consider what are our own responsibilities and their limits – in conversation and in our thoughts, in the media and in our homes, in the atrocities of war and refuge and – as did Aeschylus – asks us to consider what is just.


I saw this play for a second time last night (29 Sept) and I still think the acting is still some of the finest I think I’ve ever seen on a stage and if you can get your hands on a ticket you should go.

However, some of my views on it have changed. I cannot say whether this was due to the particular performance or only that, as Icke’s play itself points out, we view events through our own particular lenses, which may not be the same on one day and another but these are my updated thoughts.

The carpet scene appeared of more moment, although the initial act of hubris is in this version Agamemnon appropriating to himself the decision to kill Iphigenia. More strictly, he takes on himself the role of interpreting the signs – for example, it is he who repeatedly names the communication from Calchas a prophecy. His motivations for doing this seemed more clearly a desire to be the godly hero, a hubristic act which must be concealed. Stepping on the carpet continues this theme his lines: “It’s a red carpet – I’m not a priest – it’s wrong,” expose a clear understanding of the wrongness of his actions and motivations. Clearer too to me last night was that Clytemnestra’s secular decision-making was as hubristic as Agamemnon’s own. She appropriated to herself vengeance for her daughter, and perhaps also those other children killed in Agamemnon’s wars, an expiation of sorts of her complicity in these deaths.

Likewise, the netting imagery, although torn from its original meanings work in the context of characters who are trapped by the constraints limiting their own choices.  However, the mini-Saussure lecture from Clytemnestra about signs and referents stood out even more on this second performance as a weak point: the play expresses the theory clearly without a jog-through explanation. Which child is meant as the price, indeed?

More significant now to me seems that, for the Oresteia to be rescued from pastiche performances and connoisseurship, that it should not be necessary to know the ‘original’ before going to see the reworking. During Icke’s play, I realised how much I was relying on my mental picture of the Oresteia to understand what was happening on stage. I’ve studied Aeschylus’ text (thanks to the OU’s excellent MA in Classical Studies) and so although I’m not an expert critic, I cannot claim unfamiliarity.  There was also much that I simply didn’t notice until I saw it a second time. It was all there, on stage, but I wonder what my judgement would have been, had I been in the majority of the audience, who presumably know the play at most little, and saw it only the once?

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One Response to An original Oresteia?

  1. Pingback: UPDATE – Re-thinking an original Oresteia | The word muses

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