“We all make – sacrifices”
And still the Greeks come. The Gate Theatre have taken Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis and asked four playwrights to react to it with short plays from varying viewpoints, giving us The Iphigenia Quartet. Split into two double bills, we thus get Caroline Bird’s Agamemnon and Lulu Raczka’s Clytemnestra, and Suhayla El-Bushra’s Iphigenia and Chris Thorpe’s Chorus, two strong pairings that crack open the Greek tragedy and offer a kaleidoscope of responses.
Such is the enduring resilience of the original that it can take diverse treatments – to wit, the trio of Oresteias that graced British stages last year – and packed into this studio intimacy and seen on the same day (as I saw them) or not, the impact is visceral and considerable. From the raw anguish of Bird’s duelling parents to Raczka’s academic debate spun on its head, from El-Bushra’s family of Marines to Thorpe’s babbling chorus of commenters, the shifting focus is at once enigmatic and entertaining.
As one would expect, each writer tackles Euripides differently on the wide ceremonial dais of Cécile Trémolières’ design but it is interesting to see the commonalities that emerge. Bird and El-Bushra both make reference to Agamemnon’s prior slaughter of Clytemnestra’s first husband and son to remind us of the ruthlessness of the House of Atreus no matter the regret later shown. And Raczka and Thorpe both explore how historical legacies are shaped or indeed warped by perspective.
Consequently it feels as much a Clytemnestra quartet as it does an Iphigenia one, her experience both dramatically and dramaturgically being the most fascinating and under-explored. As acted out by Sharon Duncan-Brewster with utter fierceness or reacted to by Susie Trayling’s thoughtful academic, it’s to her we keep getting drawn. The one exception (of sorts) is Thorpe’s Chorus, which manages to speak volumes about society’s ever-more entitled predilection for spouting opinionated rubbish.
Speaking of which…more detailed reviews of each show can be found below ;-) If I had to pick one of the two parts for you to go to, I’d probably opt for Agamemnon and Clytemnestra though Chorus was probably my single favourite short play but spoil yourself, why not see both and be reminded of why we keep coming back to Greek tragedies and exactly how much they can still teach us today.
Running time: each double bill is 80 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 21st May
Previously at this theatre with her take on The Trojan Women, Caroline Bird’s Agamemnon (or The Restless Troops) gives us a resolutely modern, human take on this hero, opening with him drunk on cheap wine, adrift on the horns of the dilemma of the divine sacrifice required of him. But where the personal and political have become one for him. Bird gives the 10,000 soldiers he commands – those whose choice has already been made - a voice in the form of Louise McMenemy’s unflinching Messenger.
So lest we feel too sorry for Andrew French’s deeply conflicted Agamemnon, his torment is presented as self-pitying in the eyes of those who have already sacrificed so much. And by the time, Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s wig-snatching Clytemnestra unleashes all her impotent fury (and what scorching fury it is too, she is superb) at the realisation that her husband has chosen to be a politician rather than a parent – “I’m a good man in a dreadful situation” – the betrayal just as keenly felt as ever.
Bird’s vividly poetic prose conjures arresting imagery of “acorn-coloured men” and scoops of porridge “like cellulite” as well as conveying the almost brain-washed mindset of the military. And Chris Haydon’s direction shows a delicious appreciation of the potential of this space of which he is Artistic Director. The way he moves his quartet of actors has the precision of van Hove’s chessboard moves and without giving too much away, the flourish of the finale with Josh Pharo’s lighting is a real theatrical thrill.
Lulu Raczka’s Clytemnestra is perhaps formally the most interesting of the quartet, splicing together a film director (Anthony Barclay) and a Greek Tragedy lecturer’s (Susie Trayling) approaches to the play and then intertwining that with a similarly combined narrative from one of Clytemnestra’s maids and a returning Greek soldier. Director Jennifer Tang controls this torrent of words skilfully as both cultural and first-hand perceptions of Clytemnestra are put forth and then challenged.
Given the power of Duncan-Brewster’s portrayal of the character just moments before, it’s a boldly alternative take but one which gathers real power in the telling. Tremors of Elena Peña’s sound queer the pitch beautifully as the focus switches this way and that and as their stories become more personal (Trayling and Barclay are both superb in this respect), you realise just how striking an exploration of Clytemnestra’s legacy this is, without her even appearing onstage.
Suhayla El-Bushra’s Iphigenia, Scourge of Troy (aka Why Should I Die Cheap?) probably felt the weakest of the quartet for me. Interestingly, this was the only part to give a voice to Iphigenia (and to Achilles, her pseudo-betrothed too) but even then, the focus still pulled out to her parents too often for my liking, its modern specificity working against it too – Agamemnon as a Marine in thrall to the gods didn’t convince.
Rebecca Hill’s direction struggled to gather together its scattered parts even across the short running time, too jerky and disjointed for this model of storytelling. And even if Shannon Tarbet is ideal casting as an obstreperous Iphigenia, refusing to eat her dinner and spearing a satsuma on the wall-mounted antlers, again the writing didn’t quite do her justice in the final analysis.
Directed by Elayce Ismail, Chris Thorpe’s Chorus really is the bee knees. Teasing out the role of the Chorus by comparing it directly to the globally connected society of which we're all a part, Thorpe goes in hard on those who love to express an opinion, reiterate that opinion, shout down anyone who disagrees with that opinion, denigrate those who would stop them from having an opinion by, for example, not showing them live footage of a murder - "we wanted injustice done so we could watch it".
He also hints at the disparate nature of that community, how different we are even if we seem the same, crouched over flickering laptop screens waiting to publish another vicious comment, another questionable truth, another thumbs-down on an inopportune selfie. Chorus' staging plays into this side of human nature that we'd perhaps prefer hidden, I know I'll clean up my Quality Street wrappers more carefully from now on, and it's a strong indictment that only gains power from its timelessness.