Don Basilio mentions this production on the thread dealing with the one at Shakespeare’s Globe. While being mainly complimentary, Don B informs us that Robert Icke’s piece is ‘not Aeschylus’ and, having now seen it, I can definitely say he’s not wrong. In my opinion he’s so far from wrong that I question whether it’s honest to describe it as Aeschylus adapted by Icke. The description 'Robert Icke (after Aeschylus)' might be a bit mealy-mouthed but it would, I think, be more accurate.
Don B tells us that, in this production, Electra is deemed not to have existed – to have been a figment of Orestes’s imagination: which, considering how much she interacts with the other characters, stretches credibility to the limits. The revelation comes rather late in the play via the character of the Doctor* (presumably a figment of Icke’s
imagination) who is, it seems, an employee of the state involved in the assessment of Orestes prior to his trial.
The Doctor is not the only character in the piece who is not present in traditional productions. In the early scenes there are quite a few appearances of Menelaus; who has a fair bit to say but somehow never seems to mention his wife, Clytemnestra’s sister, or the original reason/pretext for the war. It was roughly at this point that I began to think the piece wasn’t just unfaithful to the original but also implausible in its own right. The pretext for the sacrifice of Iphigenia was swallowed more or less whole even though the production was in modern dress with Agamemnon an elected politician and Clytemnestra his dutiful spouse doing photo-ops, magazine interviews and everything. The idea that such a leader would even consider sacrificing his daughter for the promise of a fair wind
is quite ludicrous. Certainly I find it far easier to believe that a modern PM would deploy an army if, say, the Duchess of Cambridge had been kidnapped than ritually sacrifice a child on the strength of a glorified horoscope.
A more prominent addition than Menelaus, though, is Iphigenia herself. Indeed, it is arguable that Ag & Cly’s younger daughter , and not Orestes, is the central character of the piece. Much of the early action deals with the home life of Argos’s first family and it is that beloved younger daughter who attracts attention – especially when she sings her party piece: the Beach Boys’ haunting God Only Knows
. I couldn’t help thinking that this was a significant choice as it was just about the only mention of god(s) – who, of course, feature prominently in a traditional telling. Here we have no Apollo, the Furies are represented by one old woman (the same actor as the family servant) who repeats ‘there is a death outstanding’ frequently and (unless I missed the reference) the presiding judge at the trial is not identified as Athena. There are other oblique references to the myth: for example when Iphigenia expresses concern at being given venison for dinner Clytemnestra explains ‘if we could ask the deer I’m sure it would be happy to die so we can eat’. This (surely deliberately) puts one in mind of the alternative version of the myth where Artemis substitutes a deer for Ipheginia at the last minute.
The comments above might make Icke’s piece sound interesting – and indeed it is – but they also prompt the question: how much would this really mean to someone unfamiliar with the story? Would it be captivating – or even credible – without the name of Aeschylus (who, let’s face it, wrote a substantially different drama under this name) on the title page to add authority? For me it never quite works - possibly because it seems to be attempting a feminist re-working but is unable to overcome the obstacles to such an interpretation. Icke manages to soften the character of Clytemnestra in that the terrifying ghost of the final play never appears (Williams comes back as prosecuting counsel at the trial) but the gods have to be written out completely (presumably because of the inconvenient fact that it is Artemis who demands the sacrifice of Iphigenia and Athena who ultimately acquits Orestes.) In the end, even then Icke can't change that verdict because the alternative is that Orestes settles the account by being ordered to kill himself - which would come close to validating the sick judgement of those spouses (usually men) who punish the partner by killing the children and then themselves.
There are far more deviations than the ones mentioned above but, wary of spoiling the experience for future audiences, I shan’t list any more. Classical comparisons aside , what makes this production worth seeing is the slick staging, which will appeal to a certain kind of theatregoer, and some very strong performances, which should appeal to most. Lia Williams is tremendous and, apart from anything else, is a certainty to get ‘most blood-curdling scream’ should The Oliviers introduce such an award. She is ably supported by Angus Wright as Agamemnon, Jessica Brown-Findlay as Electra and the rest of the cast: including the children playing the young Orestes and Iphigenia (who, as my neighbour said, must have needed some shielding to avoid being emotionally scarred by the experience).
Runs until Nov 7 and, if Saturday's matinee is any guide, tickets are surprisingly easy to come by:http://www.atgtickets.com/venues/trafalgar-studios/
*as the programme seemingly contains no character list I only know this character was ‘The Doctor’ because the original actor fell ill at the interval and we were told that The Doctor would be played by an understudy for the rest of the performance. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking ‘can’t we have Tom Baker’.