Beginning the Almeida’s Greek Season in just about as ambitious a way as possible, Robert Icke has created a new version, directed by himself, of Aeschylus’ trilogy from c.458BC. Many Greek tragedies are notable for their brevity and intensity. This runs for a bum-numbing 3 hours 40 minutes, but the intensity is there in spades and “new version” means much more than just a new translation – it is modern in language, characters and relevance. Time is one of the most significant themes and digital clocks can be seen on stage, in the auditorium and even the foyer; they stop to highlight the precise time during the performance when each key incident occurs and they even count down the two interval breaks to get us back to our seats promptly for the resumption. We are reminded repeatedly that the time which each of us spends in the universe over the entire course of its existence is miniscule. At the beginning and the end, the Chorus reads out a roll call of Gods of all main religions from ancient Greece to the present, as if pointing a finger of guilt at them for all the carnage brought about in the name of religion throughout the ages, up to and including the year 2015. The overriding theme is the link from the Gods to family, going through the military. Agamemnon (Angus Wright) receives a sign from the Gods to commit an act which will lead to victory in a war, but will have devastating consequences for his wife Klytemnestra (Lia Williams) and their family. The trilogy follows their son Orestes (Luke Thompson) through from a happy family childhood to the realisation of his own fate. The Almeida stage is widened to its full expanse and left bare, save for a few furnishings, and clouded screens at the back conceal a bathroom in which key events take place as if in distant nightmares. Such is the power of the raw drama in the first three hours that they feel like one, scenes gripping with the ferocity of the eagle’s talons, referred to in a repeated metaphor. Williams is magnificent, reacting like a wounded tigress to her husband’s foul deeds. Wright and Thompson are also superb, as is Jessica Brown Findlay (an impressive stage debut for the former Downton star), making a relatively brief appearance as Elektra. It is only in the final section that the production loosens its grip as it centres on an overlong trial sequence and its key themes become lost. Now the play questions how it can ever be possible to discern between truth and fantasy when the perceptions of two or more people can be so contradictory; unintentionally, the play actually demonstrates its own point by relating the same events as Sophocles’ play Elektra, but with major differences. When the question of gender inequalities is thrown in late on, the point being made is an important one, but it feels like too much of a diversion from the main track. Nonetheless, this brave production is a substantial achievement and it augurs well for what is to come in the Almeida’s Season.
Performance date: 4 June 2015