Saturday 6 June 2015

The Oresteia – Almeida, London

[seen 05/06/15]

[photo by Manuel Harlan, pixelated by me*]

[What follows is one of those cases where form (of play) pretty much entirely dictates form (of review). Inescapably, it seems. This is just how it wanted to be written...]

[probably contains impenetrable spoilers]

“There isn’t one true version. There isn’t. There isn’t one one story – a line of truth that stretches start to end. That doesn’t happen any more, maybe it never happened, but even as I say this now, in each of your minds you create your own versions, different lenses pointing at the same thing at the same time and seeing that thing differently – depends on too much – the day you’ve had, what you feel about your mother, the thought you thought before this one – it all floods in, this thing this whole thing is helpless because your brain creates stories in which it is right.” (p.108; The Oresteia, Robert Icke, cf. Confirmation)


“‘[What do I do?]’ That is the question. It is a question blurted out at a moment of crisis, a question he never meant to ask, at least not aloud. [Orestes, son of the slain Agamemnon, murderer of his mother Klytemnestra], is facing an acute ethical problem. The play is [Robert Icke’s Oresteia]...” (p.1; Theatre & Ethics, Nicholas Ridout)

“Sometimes the commandments of religion seem to come into conflict with other reasons and desires for action. It is at such moments that an ethical crisis occurs. [Icke’s Oresteia] dramatises just such a crisis. [Agamemnon/Klytemnestra/Orestes]’s own ethical judgement seems to be in conflict not only with the judgement of [...] but also with the will of the Gods.” (p.4; Theatre & Ethics, Ridout)


The time of death from Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies.

God Only Knows from Thomas Ostermeier’s Hedda Gabler.

The courtroom exhibits from Katie Mitchell’s Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem kino.

Perhaps that low bass rumble from Three Kingdoms.

Jesus. Those sudden David Lynch/Relocated moments.

“the language is dead” (Icke, p.87) – cf. This is How We Die.

And maybe even a bit of Rupert Goold’s Trial of Judas Iscariot, and Deborah Warner’s Medea.

Even the casting could feel like quotes: Lorna Brown from Alice Birch’s Little Light, Rudi Dharmalingham from Ramin Gray’s The Events and Blanche McIntyre’s The Seagull, Annie Firbank from Ramin’s Golden Dragon, Lia Williams from Rupert’s Earthquakes in London, and then *of course* Angus Wright from *a lot* of Katie Mitchell. (“there has been a creative decision to not assign character names to each actor for this” email Cornershop PR, 05 June 2015 13:30:06.)


Ok, let’s do this:

There are a million sound textual reasons to start writing about Rob Icke’s new play, The Oresteia, with the footnotes.  This Oresteia is credited as “a new adaptation” of the Aeschylus, but to be honest, I’d have been just as happy to have accepted the idea that this is a New Play. As at least three different prefaces, introductions, and programme notes point out, the Ancient Greek authors were themselves adaptors, and that all subsequent productions are *versions* anyway. But I’d say, the sheer weight of actual new ideas and concepts, thoughts and, hell, new words that Icke has created here makes this, for my money, a new play.

It is also possibly the best new play I’ve seen this year (or equal best new- anyway). In terms of scale, it is the most impressive new play since Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III. But, Jesus, Andrew, what’s with all this “best” stuff?

In terms of my own interests: it suggests the opening of a new avenue in Britain’s reintegration with Europe. On one hand, a production that (I think) directly quotes from other key European stagings of classics, intelligently, deliberately situating it as part of that lineage; a production of a classic that speaks directly to our own concerns; and yet still, that very English solution, even while creating a brilliant piece of auteur theatre, the real solution lying in (brilliant, incisive) new writing.

It is even a play that acknowledges that I’ll think precisely this, because: “[my] brain creates stories in which it is right”. Indeed, every review you read about this Oresteia will tell you more about its author’s worldview about than the play/production. (Obviously this is true of all reviews ever, but since seeing Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation again last week, the importance of acknowledging this fact has been refreshed in my mind.)

I guess it’s always the case that a “modern dress production” of a classic text always requires a certain level of cognitive dissonance in order to work. But here, I think Icke’s production goes further. In writing in a whole first act which tells the Iphigenia in Aulis story (“adapted from” the relevant bit of Aeschylus’s chorus in the Oresteia, NOT the Euripides, says the PR email), Icke brilliantly psychologizes this 2,500-year-old story, at once giving us modern warfare, the latest euthanasia drugs, and – again – something weirdly identifiable with the Blair/Iraq story at the same time as this horrific Bronze Age proposition. Point after eloquent point about both timeless ethical questions and the most up-to-date postmodern theories on mental health, relativism and religion land with real impact. And, added to this, the feeling of a thorough, incisive, ongoing essay about how and why we stage the classics at all. As well as being incredibly moving in its own right, it feels like there’s a secondary source of power derived from the care and attention to which modernity lends its understanding in trying to rehabilitate this ancient thing.

The way that it deploys the thinking and speak of a society at home with therapy (carefully worded to *not imply* “therapy-culture” and all that reactionary back-to-stiff-upper-lip bullshit) and emotional intelligence makes this Iphigenia almost like a tortured, intimate version of Downfall. The challenge to our modern morality here is suddenly being made to see things from Agamemnon’s perspective. Like: why are we being made to feel sorry for this formerly cut-and-dried monster? But, by God, it’s well done.

A note on the writing: in all this enthusing about the *ideas* in this production, it would be very easy to neglect to mention just how good the *actual writing* is. The actual writing is fucking wonderful. It would also be easy to say that Icke has essentially adapted the poetic – *operatic* even – original into prose. This would also be wrong. There are bursts of real lyricism, but the rest of the time there’s still a real growling, rhythmic intensity to the text. More than once, I thought of Martin Crimp, who, as we know, is probably the most musical of British playwrights. This often has that same flinty, spare intensity. But it’s less elliptical. Here, when an idea comes up, it feels like it’s unpacked almost fulsomely. There is *a lot* of this sparseness, so to speak.

A note on the production: and, in all this enthusing about the ideas and writing, it would be very easy to neglect talking about the staging, which still feels somehow like it’s a different thing to discuss. Even though the production dramaturg is the very brilliant Dr Duška Radosavljevic, who has probably done more than most to erase the hard conceptual line between text and performance in our minds. *Of course* the way in which this staging operates – directed by Icke himself – adds layer upon multiple layer to the words, and enables us to read the whole in a series of particular ways. Of course Hildegard Bechtler’s design – those almost ubiquitous layers of sliding glass doors. Walls, partitions; sometime transparent, sometimes not (cf. theatrically, too many to mention, or my walk to Sainsbury’s); those Scandi-tables and benches (a bit cf. Andrews’s Three Sisters) – adds to that sense of how we read text, action, video work (Tim Reid), light (Natasha Chivers) and sound (Tom Gibbons). But I don’t think it’s heretical to suggest that visual signals are, in part, separate to abstract concepts. Of course, even just writing that down reminds me that something similar is discussed by Klytemnestra in the play, and actually both things *do* muddle together in the clearing house of the mind, and ultimately, “’s still light. Light inside your brain” (p.63).

“You never stop thinking, do you?” – Klytemnestra (p.36)

A note on the acting: in all this enthusing about the staging, it would be very easy to neglect to talk about the actual acting. The acting was good. No, really. The acting here is phenomenally good. Everyone in the cast is brilliant. Lia Williams is perhaps the greatest revelation (for me). I’ve seen her be *completely believable* in relatively straightforward plays, but this is a whole other thing. The demands of the text – to be public figure, private modern mum, and possessed, ancient force of nature, complete with knuckle-whitening scream – offer a challenge which is equalled, bettered, and then shredded for good measure. Emotional intelligence, vocal shifts, different physicalities to the point of believing in body-doubles. Actually thrilling performance. Angus Wright we already knew was brilliant, but here, with such a character (nominally: Agamemnon, Aegisthus, postmodern confusion and etc.) you really get a measure of just how great. Like Williams, the switches feel both immense and subtle. And his voice is just something else. How do you describe the grain of a voice. It’s the sort of thing that almost demands stupid writing. Angular, textured, authoritative? So a voice like an upper-class brick? Actually, somehow: yes. Jessica Brown Findlay and Luke Thompson are both more natural (not a criticism of the above AT ALL), and both’s greatest strengths lie in the complete defencelessness of their direct-audience-address. In a way, it perhaps feels like the different components of the ensemble are deployed separately in the production, each according to role and strengths, to perform different vital facets of a wider theatrical whole. Ensemble members with fewer lines/ less “through-line” also perform beautifully. For me, Dharmalingam feels like the closest point of contact, perhaps partly because of his accent, but then maybe also for the simple reason that he is the first person in the production to speak – a list of every name of God. Hara Yannis’s role as captive foreigner Cassandra requires her – as the stage directions put it – to: “suddenly speak in Ancient Greek from the original Aeschylus – passionate, furious, tearful. It’s terrifying to listen to”. And, well, perfectly put, stage direction. Hearing the original as if conjured from some tear in the earth itself, disinterred, is somehow doubly chilling both for the power of its resonance and for the way it *doesn’t* sound alien enough. Oh, and, Jesus Christ: Annie Firbank’s Fury. Fuck. Genuinely creepy. Brilliant.

For the sake of not actually spoilering the final focus-pull of how Icke’s Act Four achieves *being* the Εὐμενίδες I’ll not describe it in painful detail, suffice it to say, it’s a logical next step to which the whole has been pointing all along, and contains, for my money, one of the neatest defences of theatre, justice, democracy and the arts – at the same time a robust attack on them – that you could imagine.

There. I think that begins to cover it.

I think it’s brilliant. And that might well be because I can only ever see what I want to see. But I’m willing to bet that people who don’t agree with me about a single thing could also find 3hrs40 of things to love about it too. And if they can’t, then maybe that’s about the story they want to tell themselves instead.  But, for anyone who’s interested in ideas, or theatre, or just a gripping story thrillingly told (I promised myself I wouldn’t say “DVD box-set” but...), this is unmissable.

*Because none of the publicity photos I’ve seen quite managed to capture – if it’s even possible – either a sense of what the multi-layered whole *felt* like, or an image that was beautiful enough in its own right. (cf. the iconic Carmen Disruption pic.) No disrespect intended to the photo I have pixellated, though. It’s a lovely photo in its own right, just not the same as the play I thought I saw.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't watch theatre too much so finding your review was a happy discovery. Reading the insights from an expert was very helpful. I hadn't for instance realised Oresteia quoted so much.

Here are my thoughts. It appears I am in a minority for not finding it 100% convincing.

I am hoping to go to Bakkhai/Bacchae too, which promises to be more compact and thus perhaps more to my liking!