If you have ever seen a play by Aeschylus, you know how static and slow they are, made up entirely of monologues and choral odes with hardly any action. It was Sophocles and Euripides who added what we consider drama to ancient Greek plays. Director Robert Icke’s new version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the only complete Greek trilogy that remains extant, has been adapted into a updated tetralogy that is accessible, easy to identify with, and dramatically exciting. The Almeida Theatre production now at the Park Avenue Armory features magnificent performances by Anastasia Hille (Baptiste’s wife Celia in the television series of the same name) and Angus Wright (Claudius, in Icke’s current also modern dress production of Hamlet running in repertory with Oresteia) as Klytemnestra and Agamemnon. Presented as a long evening of four plays, this is a commitment for the audience as the running time is three hours and 35 minutes with three intermissions.
While Aeschylus’s three plays (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides) begin with King Agamemnon’s homecoming from the Trojan War and his subsequent killing by his wife Queen Klytemnestra as revenge for the death of their daughter Iphigenia), Icke chose to create an entirely new first act which covers material in Homer’s The Iliad and Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis) in which we learn of the god’s decree that for the Greeks to win the Trojan War (here not stated as to which war), Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Greek forces, must sacrifice his daughter. Icke has also eliminated the long choral odes, only leaving in the priest Calchas who has one prayer which opens the play, listing all of the religious icons of every religion, implying we are all one.
The most powerful scene of the evening is Klytemnestra’s debate with her husband as to the justification for this atrocity in the name of the greater good. His contention is that fewer Greek soldiers will lose their lives, the war will be shortened, and the Greek side, assumed to be the right one, will ultimately triumph. Here Iphigenia (alternated by Elyana Faith Randolph and Alexis Rae Forlenza) is a child still playing with dolls, rather than the young woman in Aeschylus’ original engaged to Achilles, more upsetting as the child has her whole life ahead of her. The center of this evening of plays rather than Orestes for whom it is named, Hille’s Klytemnestra is a force of nature running the entire gamut of emotions, while the conflicted and cerebral Agamemnon of Wright is equally effective as he tries to hold back from letting his emotions run away with him.
Icke also frames the play as a flashback in which their son Orestes (Luke Treadaway, Laertes in Hamlet) is being questioned by a Doctor (Kirsty Rider), who we assume is a psychiatrist, about his murder of his mother (depicted in The Libation Bearers, Act III) and his bad dreams, before his trial depicted in The Eumenides, Act IV in this version.) Although this is an interesting contemporary touch, it is a bit confusing as we don’t initially recognize the doctor (is it his sister Electra?) until well into the play and Treadaway’s take on Orestes is as a whiny, entitled young man, not a heroic vengeance seeker.
The design by Hildegard Bechtler is a variation on her same unit set for Hamlet: here a large room with a long conference or dining table, backed by sliding glass walls, which occasionally open to reveal a huge bath, This is where Klytemnestra will kill Agamemnon on the day of his homecoming for the death of their daughter, as well as his adultery with Cassandra (Hara Yannas), unidentified as the daughter of King Priam of Troy, whom he brings home as a spoil of the war. Natasha Chivers’ dark lighting creates much of the on stage mood throughout the evening.
Excellent use is also made of the tables when laid on their sides for the press conference that accompanies Agamemnon’s return and which is projected on three screens in Tim Reid’s video design, as are several other newly created television interviews for the royal family. Bechtler’s costumes put the men in formal black suits and white shirts, Klytemnestra and the Doctor in black as well. Occasionally, the royal couple put on red dressing gowns which seem to presage dire events. The young Orestes is in white, while the adult Orestes (who will kill his mother) is dressed entirely in black. His sister Electra appears in pale blue, while young Iphigenia is in saffron orange, as is Cassandra later, who might just be a substitute daughter for Agamemnon. The six jurors in the final scene of Orestes’ trial wear black outfits but are clad in red robes over their clothing.
Agamemnon is paired with Aegisthus, Klytemnestra’s lover, which makes visual sense as they are first cousins (though the play does not reveal this.) Tia Bannon’s Electra gets short shrift as we are used to seeing her as the heroine of her own plays by Sophocles and Euripides. As the Nurse to the family here called Cilissa, Marty Cruickshank (the Player Queen in Hamlet) adds an additional emotional level to the play, commenting on the action. Alternating in the role of young Orestes (Hudson Paul and Wesley Holloway) add a heartbreaking element to the story line as the recurring nightmare that besets him is later explained as his mother’s story.
Rider as the Doctor treating the older Orestes is clinical and impassive in the manner of modern Freudian psychiatrists. The hysterical Cassandra of Yannas later plays the calm, collected goddess Athene whose decision concerning Orestes’ murder of his mother ends the play. Peter Wight’s Menelaus, (Agamemnon’s brother but not identified as such) and Joshua Higgott as Talthybias, an aide to Agamemnon, give fine support in their few short scenes.
One of the high points of Western Drama, Aeschylus’ Oresteia is little known today except as a footnote to Greek mythology and the story of the Fall of the House of Atreus. While director/adaptor Robert Icke has made numerous changes, he has also turned the trilogy into a play for our time and one that can be understood by modern audiences. His version also gives Anastasia Hille and Angus Wright bravura roles that they play to the hilt, reminding us what magnificent parts the Greek dramatists created. While the length will make this prohibitive for some, the chance to see this engrossing production in a rare revival of a seminal play should not be missed by those interested in serious drama.
Oresteia (in repertory with Hamlet through August 13, 2022)
Almeida Theatre Productions
Park Avenue Armory
Thompson Arts Center, 611 Park Avenue between 66-67th Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-933-5812 or visit http://www.armoryonpark.org
Running time: three hours and 35 minutes with two intermissions and one pause