“There isn’t one true version. There isn’t. There isn’t one story — a line of truth that stretches start to end.”
I saw Robert Icke’s extraordinary new version of Oresteia on the same day that I watched episode 9 of series 5 of Game of Thrones [here be spoilers] and gods alive, that was a brutal day of dead children. It was also a day of some sensational acting - Stephen Dillane and Tara Fitzgerald both doing excellent work in the North, and Angus Wright and Lia Williams in blistering form in North London in the first show of the Almeida’s Greeks season which on this evidence, looks set to be a thrilling highlight of the year.
Described as an adaptation by Icke of Aeschylus’ trilogy of plays detailing the fall of the House of Atreus, the reality feels more all-encompassing, a transfiguration of the drama(s) into something genuinely new that really examines the nature of Greek tragedies in light of contemporary theatre. Appropriately, Ivo van Hove was in the audience having spoken on a panel discussion earlier in the day, and it was clear to see that Icke is in part paying homage to the Belgian with influences both specific and more general clear to see in the direction here.
The moments of characters’ death are time-stamped as in The Roman Tragedies, a howling wind gusts as strongly as it did in Antigone, the ominous rumbles of Tom Gibbons’ sound design echoing so many Toneelgroep Amsterdam productions. There may well have been wider references too but the point seems that they come from a place of respect and are elevated by their inclusion here, like music samples being layered to create a new, if slightly, familiar tune. And what new music this is, shattering and reinvigorating at the same time.
We get a dramatisation of the sacrifice of Iphigenia and crucially, a real sense of the family dynamic that existed before Agamemnon gave up his daughter’s life to the gods in order to win the Trojan War. Angus Wright is agonisingly raw as a father who cares so much for his daughter but cannot see past what he considers his higher duty. And Klytemnestra’s ferocious rage is thus given real context – it’s easy to lose sight of the fact it is her husband knowingly killing their child that Electra and Orestes later object to – and in Lia Williams’ hands, there’s no doubting the driving force behind her fury, so powerfully portrayed here in all its blood-curdling tragedy.
And because Icke has conceived this as a family drama, we keep coming back to the dinner table, to the rituals that bind people together, even as the world is falling apart. Jessica Brown Findlay makes a stunning theatrical debut as Electra, humanising her loss as a girl just longing for her father, and Luke Thompson’s Orestes is wonderfully anguished as he continually tries and fails to process his place in this cycle of violence. He’s aided by a questioning figure, a thoughtful Lorna Brown, whose role becomes clear in a final act which has a fiercely thoughtful energy to it, rooted in the very establishment of a system of justice for the first time.
Hildegard Bechtler’s design facilitates all of this with ingenuity and invention, Natasha Chivers’ lighting helping to pick out the multiple layers of action, stretching back to a baleful bath-tub. Tim Reid’s video and media work also plays a vital role in delineating the public and private, the politics of the city-state versus the integrity of the family, and they all – we all – must come to realise the consequences of our violent actions. There’s not only two more plays in this Greeks season but two more major Oresteias to come as well (at the Globe and in Manchester) – Icke has very much laid down the gauntlet to hopefully inspire some similarly tremendous pieces of theatre.
Running time: 3 hours 40 minutes (with 2 intervals and a pause)
Booking until 18th July