Oresteia was recently shown on the West End following a sellout run at the Almeida, where it has been universally hailed as an astonishing, bold and exhilarating theatrical feat. Aeschylus’ greatest and final play is directed by Robert Icke (Mr. Burns; 1984) and stars Lia Williams (Old Times; Earthquakes in London) as Klytemnestra and Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) as Electra.
A clock ticks. It counts exactly how much time the audience has during the intervals. The actors do not vacate the stage. They stare out into the auditorium. They make the audience complicit in the action when it resumes. The clock stops to tell the time and date of every death. This is the latest adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia by Robert Icke. It is edge-of-your-seat nail-biting suspense in a play where everyone already knows the ending. It is masterful. On the London West End stage the characters are at home. Agamemnon is the honoured Prime Minister and Clytemnestra is his first lady. The politics of today are placed under intense scrutiny as though the home of the power couple were a microcosm, a petri dish, of society at large; and everything has gone wrong.
True to the original function of the ancient Greek festivals – held at the assembly of the polis where decisions regarding the democratic running of the state would also be made – this version takes for its theme democracy itself. In the 5th century B.C.E Aeschylus’ Oresteia shifted the notion of Orestes as mythological hero, as the exemplar for how to be a man. Seminal Greek scholar and consultant on this re-visioning of the classic play, Professor Simon Goldhill says, ‘The Oresteia is a perfect instance of how tragedy rewrites stories of the past as a story for and as a challenge to the democratic city and its values.’ Speaking, here, about Aeschylus’ version, it is uncanny how the same words can be applied to Icke’s re-imagining of the text to current politics.
When Calchas says, ‘This has all happened before. And more than once’ at the very beginning of this play, the clock is still internal. It is the beating rhythms of the entrances of the chorus and Agamemnon that set the pace and it is terrifyingly familiar. The audience already knows how this story ends and Icke manipulates this with terrific finesse. The story is cast in contemporary clothing with screens and a live-video feed. The protagonist Orestes is having flashbacks of how the whole tragedy came to be but the images are disturbed by his memory. He sits as the embodiment of the key questions that Aeschylus threw into the Orestes myth so long ago: ‘What should I do? Should I respect my mother and not kill her?’ In this version, Orestes also asks, ‘Where does it end?’
The ending is already known, the clock ticks the immediacy of the action and the urgency of it means that all are culpable. The audience is asked to decide the fate of Orestes who killed his mother; they are asked why her death counts for less than that of the father and why the life of the son must be spared when the daughter’s was not. The fact that Aeschylus actually asked the question about the mother when the original myth had completely ignored the female deaths as necessary is what makes this questioning of democracy and its brand of justice crucial. It places women in the story of how the world should best be governed. It places women at the centre of the mythology and questions the myth of women in history. Woman is shown as a manifestation of falling. The perpetual tormenting fall of Clytemnestra is paused for us to take in its effects on the falling body – the scapegoats of history for all eternity. When Orestes finally kills her, as the myth wrote down in history, the clock stops and we are back in the mythological vortex that makes it seem like simple teleology, a causal narrative where she must always lose, but here we are involved in an epic form that searches after its own plot as it is unfolding. Orestes is not just protagonist; he is both mirror and microscope dissecting the ancient story to try to reassess the memory that has been given of the roles that genders have been cast in. His memory keeps failing to reach into the source of the flooding river of images that seem to make it inevitable that woman must finally and always serve the lesser role where she is punished more harshly for her wrongs than he who is made a monument for bringing her down.
As with Aeschylus, Icke’s ending is not a mere acceptance of the mythological narrative. Orestes says, ‘There isn’t one true story – a line of truth that stretches start to end.’ The roles are left dissected – open – in the petri dish.