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Theatre in Review: Oresteia (Almeida Theatre/Park Avenue Armory)

Angus Wright, Elyana Faith Randolph. Photo: Joan Marcus

It has been a very, very long time -- perhaps never -- since I have seen a production so intimately acquainted with the terrors of the earth as Robert Icke's Oresteia. When first announced, the pairing of Hamlet and Oresteia for Park Avenue Armory's summer season seemed oddly arbitrary. But Icke, who directed both and adapted Aeschylus' text, manages in each case to merge classic tragedy with contemporary political reality to shattering effects. Theatre doesn't come more monumental, or more savage, than this.

Just as the currently running Hamlet is set among a royal court similar to the House of Windsor, its image shaped by carefully controlled media, Oresteia unfolds in a 21st-century world of warfare all too reminiscent of the conflicts in Iraq and Ukraine. Agamemnon, a faith-based ruler in what may be a largely secular kingdom, is horrified by an oracular pronouncement insisting that ruinous war can be avoided if his young daughter Iphigenia dies by his hand. The first, but far from the last, blood-curdling image features him standing behind the little girl, tautly holding the belt from his robe, seemingly preparing to strangle her while, unaware, she quietly sings Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows."

Even when staring at a note that brands him as a "child killer," Agamemnon is not a monster. As portrayed by Angus Wright, he is possessed of authentic religious feeling and is profoundly anguished at the thought of murdering one of his own. Still, Peter Wight, as Menelaus, his brother and counselor, suavely makes the argument for appeasing the gods. After all, he notes, arrangements can be made for Iphigenia to expire painlessly. If she is allowed to live and the war is lost, her existence will be miserable. And, his advisor Talthybias (a solid Joshua Higgott), adds, think of all slaughter that will be avoided: "No broken families following after coffins. No urns packed smooth with ashes. The thousands of lives that we'd save if it ended even a year early."

It is a decision that cannot be made, that must be made. And when Iphigenia's murder comes, it is via a state-approved program of assisted suicide. The girl, sitting in her father's lap, is administered a three-part medication designed to induce "respiratory arrest and circulatory collapse, cerebral death." The event is recorded on video; Agamemnon must verbally sign off on the process. Even when committing an unthinkable crime, the bureaucratic details must be attended to. The contrast between the trusting girl -- she has no idea what is happening -- and her agonized father, following the directions of a soft-spoken, death-dealing clinician, is astonishing, leaving the armory in a profound state of silence.

Iphigenia's death is followed by a cue that I won't describe, except to note it uses special effects, lighting, and especially sound to render the universe's visceral reaction to this sinful act. It is one of the most terrifying moments I have ever experienced in a theatre.

Over the course of four acts spanning three hours and forty-five minutes, as the death of Iphigenia becomes the catalyst in a bloody, self-sustaining cycle of revenge, Icke and his supremely committed company deliver many searing moments: Klytemnestra, roused to homicidal fury at Agamemnon, hurling herself at him until he wrestles her to the ground. Klytemnestra, panting with exhaustion mixed with exhilaration, dragging her husband's bloodied corpse across the stage. Cassandra, displaced by war, howling a baleful prophecy in words that nobody understands. Klytemnestra, facing the murderous Orestes, baring herself and hissing, "I fed both of you from this breast, inside me, Iphigenia and you. You were given life."

Icke's text is eminently playable, laying out in the plainest of terms the characters' unacceptable choices and their disastrous consequences, often in a stream of consciousness that exposes them as teetering on the edge of sanity. When a desperate Klytemnestra demands of Agamemnon if Iphigenia's sacrifice "feels right," he replies, savagely, "When did we decide that the right thing always feels right, it doesn't, it's hard, it's destructive and it's a sacrifice, it's putting yourself last, far faraway last, cold at the back, in the service of other lives, in the service of the greater good." (Not long after, she will remind him, cruelly, "Violence is how you've put food on the table.")

Klytemnestra, half-mad with excitement at having dispatched Agamemnon and Cassandra, muses, "We love a female criminal, that strength a transgression, carnal, sexier or something, the stronger/weaker vessel or whatever, but this is not the world. Not now. The lights are on. Your houses have drawers full of knives. It's not biology, not destiny, it's just balance, the law of moral appetite, the inevitable act that follows when when when...he killed our daughter." Electra, pouring red wine -- Agamemnon's drink of choice --- into his grave, tells Orestes: "And we burn the house to ash. We wipe out its history. And we cut off its future. No weddings for us. No children to sit at that table. No more of it. No more of us, of any of us."

The entire production is framed as a flashback, with Orestes detailing his awful family history to a doctor. And, at the point when Aeschylus introduces a supernatural element in the form of the Furies who come to judge his matricide, Icke's test startingly delivers a psychological thriller twist, sweeping the characters into a courtroom for a final deliberation that, in the end, settles nothing. It's not surprising that the play ends with Orestes repeating, in torment, "What do I do?" It is the question that has nagged everyone all night long -- and the answers always come with terrible consequences.

Without question, the production is dominated by Anastasia Hille, whose Klytemnestra, a basically contented, if slightly skeptical, royal spouse, moves by degrees into a purposeful psychosis driven by bloodlust. In advance of her husband's triumphal return, she gives an unsettling interview, angrily correcting a journalist's pronunciation of "Iphigenia" before acidly querying, "Who writes your questions?" and bluntly admitting to having made a suicide attempt. Her fierce engagement with Agamemnon and Orestes raises these confrontations to the boiling point and the scream of triumph that follows her double slaying is an authentic cry of the damned. Wright, the ultra-smooth Claudius of Hamlet, is a much more tortured figure here, his conscience pierced from all directions. In what may be his most powerful moment, Agamemnon, having return from the war a broken man, gives a speech that casts aside any note of triumph to muse on the bitter human toll. Note, too, how gingerly and with distaste he treads the victory carpet prepared for him by Klytemnestra. Luke Treadaway's Orestes, is eaten up with anxiety and rage, rising to an annihilating fury that leaves him hollowed out and possibly insane.

The production makes good use of Hildegard Bechtler's set design, also used for Hamlet; it's an essentially bare space dominated by a large table downstage, and, upstage, behind a wall of windows, another playing area sometimes furnished with a large bathtub. Her costumes are sleek and filled marked by telling color choices, including the occasional red garment that signals mayhem to come. Note, too, how Iphigenia and Cassandra are dressed in the same color, a sign that Agamemnon is trying to assuage his guilt with a substitute daughter figure. Video designer Tim Reid delivers live action feeds to screens at left and right and upstage. Natasha Chivers's lighting casts a sepulchral glow over the stage, expertly carving the cast out of darkness. Tom Gibbons' sound design sets out, in select moments, to rattle one's nerves, which it does with brio.

It's difficult to sustain this kind of intensity over such a long evening and, in truth, the action takes a dip around the beginning of Act III, when Klytemnestra is locked in with her lover Aegisthus (also played by Wright). But it recovers before arriving at a finale that leaves us pondering some of the biggest, most fundamental questions of human existence. We rarely get tragedy on this scale, served up with such ruthless confidence; few artists are willing to pursue an appalling narrative to its ultimate end. This Oresteia takes us to a moral underworld and, as such, is not for the faint of heart. But it's a trip you are unlikely to forget. --David Barbour

(28 July 2022)

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