Almeida Theatre | ★★★★★
It may be undergoing a revival in London, but Greek tragedy is not an easy fit with the contemporary stage. Traditionalist directors risk creating something either staidly academic or bathetically hysteric, while would-be revolutionaries can dilute the sources’ inherent power. Robert Icke’s new Oresteia at the Almeida, which he has both adapted from Aeschylus and directed himself, pitches itself so far on the latter side that it gains an astonishing potency of its own.
Icke’s adaptation is a revelation. Moments of poetry are submerged in a largely unadorned whole, lending them extra force. The tragic – and this Oresteia really is tragic, with a pervasive aura of despair – is leavened by just the right measure of humour. Icke’s decision to dramatise the death of Iphigenia, conveyed only in retrospect by Aeschylus, heightens the play’s cyclical power. A series of twists in the later acts magnify our interpretations of the proceeding action, letting us leave the theatre with questions still ringing in our ears. This is Greek drama freed from formula and formality. It engages the mind while grappling at our guts.
The direction is equally sharp. Every detail, down to the different approaches by which characters enter and exit, is minutely choreographed. There is some inspired doubling of parts. By placing the murderous acts onstage, Icke thickens their impact. Hildegard Bechler’s set may resemble a sleek extension to an Islington townhouse, but it comes to have an oppressive ambience of its own. And Natasha Chivers’ lighting enhances the pivotal scenes. Devices that could become weary – a clock that flashes up every time a character dies, peels of a dinner bell – retain their effectiveness to the end.
Angus Wright imbues Agamemnon with a nervy authority, crafting humanity in a figure who could easily be a mere tyrant. Jessica Brown Findley makes an assured stage debut as the tortured Electra. As Iphigenia, the young Clara Reed makes us keenly feel the horror of her fate. One must have a heart of stone to watch her death without crying. Above all, though, this is Lia Williams’ night. Her Clytemnestra demands empathy even in the throes of bloodlust, as she slips from concerned to crazed. It’s a mesmerising performance.
With a runtime of almost four hours, there are spots where this Oresteia sags. But considered as a whole, it is a triumph. The bar for the Almeida Greeks season has been set astoundingly high.