Rupert Goold's promise to 'take the Greeks out of the attic' (pun intended, I think) has got off to a spectacular start at the Almeida. His longtime collaborator Robert Icke, largely responsible for the same theatre's hit version of Orwell's 1984, has turned Aeschylus upside down and inside out while retaining the essential tragic dimension.
This version of the three plays dealing with the bloody House of Atreus runs for three and a half hours. While it could be shortened, I never felt it was a minute too long and I was riveted up to the last moment. Icke's achievement is that he has not just directed but has rewritten the original three plays himself, applying the old dramatist's motto 'show, don't tell'. So events that are just narrated as backstory in the original, such as the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia at the start of the war against Troy, are brought to life in heart-stopping detail. While the Greeks did their murders off-stage, Icke spares us nothing as Iphigenia is forced to swallow a fatal drug cocktail by her father and gradually expires in his arms.
Agamemnon, brilliantly played by Angus Wright, is a Blairite politician on his way to war, a family man ready to sacrifice his family for his country. What I like about this production is the effortless way Icke blends the ancient and the modern, the divine and the human, bridging the gap of two and a half thousand years between the world of today and the world of Aeschylus. So the reason Iphigenia is sacrificed -- the need for the gods to make the wind blow and allow their ships to move on Troy -- seems to fit perfectly into the 21st century family drama.
While the Old Vic's stunning production of Electra last year with Kristin Scott Thomas was visually and atmospherically very Greek, this version is the opposite. When the cast appear on stage as an ensemble for the first time, they look exactly like the Almeida audience -- very cultured, very well-heeled. Transferring the action away from Greece and into Islington bridges the gap with the audience, who can immediately empathise with the characters on stage. Hildegard Bechtler's design reduces the domestic interior to its absolute essentials -- some metal tables and stools, a white tablecloth, and a carafe of red wine. In Greek tragedy, less is more. The back of the stage is hidden by a series of glass screens, which open to reveal a large stone bath, ideal for committing murder.
This brilliant adaptation involves some artistic losses; Electra (Jessica Brown Findlay) has a wonderful monologue mourning her father, but her role is downplayed as the focus shifts to Orestes her brother, and the Furies only make a fleeting appearance. But the rest of Icke's vision is so compelling that it all makes perfect sense. The most thrilling stage performance comes, not surprisingly, from Lia Williams as Clytemnestra, with short blonde hair and a black trouser-suit straight from one of Upper Street's smart boutiques. Luke Thompson as Orestes, who is half inside the action and half outside it, trying to make sense of the family drama, conveys a very modern kind of anguish.
Later this season Shakespeare's Globe will give us their version of the Oresteia, while the Almeida moves on to the Bakkhai and Medea, directed by James Macdonald and Rupert Goold. I can't wait.