Two millennia after its first performance Aeschylus’s Oresteia is as relevant to the heart of our society as it ever was. One of the world’s oldest family dramas, it grabs you in the gut and wrings you inside out – we are forced to face the ugly truth of our humanity, of how far a choice can bury us in the earth. One of the reasons of its survival is how this play attacks the core of our existence and the foundation of society – what is justice and does it really exist? Whose truth is right and wrong? If we all perceive the truth through subjective lenses – our own experiences, problems and beliefs – who is then to judge and choose?
Oresteia is the world’s first surviving trilogy and bursts with many flavours, exposing the true nature of human beings. Agamemnon is leading his country to war but the winds have died and it’s unbearably hot. Without the wind they can’t sail to Troy and win the war, and as his country’s leader he’s forced to take action. Being religious, the answer comes from God – he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia for the wind to come and bring victory. It raises a heavily debated, impossible moral question: is murder justified if it saves lives? Is it acceptable to kill one to save many? Agamemnon chooses the state over his family and it brings doom over his household. As revenge is fuelled, blood is spilled and we are forced to ask ourselves who’s in the right and who should be punished as the bloodbath escalates.
As with Shakespeare there is something fundamentally revealing in Greek tragedies that still speaks to us today 2,000 years down the line. Even with social media spamming us every day and mutating our lifestyle we still connect to the essence of Greek drama, to the voice of what it means to be human. A lot has changed since then but we’re still the same at the core. Robert Icke’s adaptation for the Almeida is a masterpiece in itself, revealing the truth in Aeschylus’s play today, making it not just harrowingly real and close to centre, but also electrifyingly sharp in dialogue and pace. His direction bursts with detail and brilliance. Though Hildegard Bechtler’s design is minimal and stylish with sliding glass doors and cold furniture, it’s hugely effective and gives the shivers when timed with action, Natasha Chivers’s poignant light effects and Tom Gibbons’s atmospheric sound. The story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is dramatised for the first part (not usually in Oresteia though mentioned by the chorus in other versions) and as the ritual of the happy family is established, the aftershock of the sacrifice is haunting and creates a fantastic foundation for the rest of the play.
The cast are phenomenal and though there isn’t a chorus in the traditional sense we get a very strong vibe of ensemble, of a communal contribution to this bloody epic. Angus Wright has great warmth and is captivating as Agamemnon and depicts a leader and father so resonating of today’s men at the top. Though he sacrifices his family for the state, we never lose the grieving father and crumbling ruler. Lia Williams’s Klytemnestra is thrillingly present and her journey throughout the play is so full of truth and pain it’s terrifying to watch. Her changes are remarkable and the motherly warmth and loss that drives her throughout creates a character whose choices we all understand on some level. Weighed with the bloody decision of the troubled Orestes (the arresting Luke Thompson) we are forced to balance the two choices – killing a father versus killing a mother – and decide for ourselves which is more justified. It raises the question of gender preference and how we still, 2,000 years later, prefer men in different aspects of society despite claiming equality.
Robert Icke’s production has so many fascinating digs at society and humanity it’s hard to resist writing a whole essay about it. It touches into our growing public persona, how everything is in the public eye somehow today and how we all judge each other in many different ways, with our own version of morality and truth. It taps into religion and faith and what we chose to believe depending on what eyes we’ve got. The strong sense of ritual throughout leaves a striking, bitter mark – a harmonious family ritual is repeated throughout but slowly decaying as the house of Agamemnon crumbles and its members make self-justice a matter of the individual, not the state. It adds to the many slick and impressive directorial moments and fuels the excitement for the production throughout. Though the play is on the darker side of three and a half hours, it feels like a heartbeat – Icke’s storytelling marries the extraordinary performances with such gut and brilliance it’s worth every second counted on the set. It is a terrifying, thought-provoking, extraordinary production that shows just how good theatre can really be.
Oresteia is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 18 July. For tickets and more information, see the Almeida Theatre website.