Judging from Robert Icke’s adaptation, Aeschylus took the easy way out. In the Greek playwright’s version of The Oresteia written 2,500 years ago — telling the story of the cycle of murder and revenge in the House of Atreus — Klytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon as revenge for his killing their daughter Iphigenia, followed by Klytemnestra’s son Orestes killing Klytemnestra as revenge for her killing his father, followed by a trio of goddesses known as the Furies hunting down Orestes as revenge for his killing his mother….
But why did Agamemnon kill Iphigenia in the first place?
In the original, the chorus quickly catches us up on what happened long before the play begins (a sacrifice to the goddess Artemis), keeping it at a distance.
At the Park Avenue Armory, by contrast, the murder is in your face. In the ambitious, aggressively contemporary, at times visually arresting but ultimately numbing 210-minute adaptation of “Oresteia,” on stage through August 13, adapter and director Icke invents an entire Act I that is given over to the events leading up to and including Agamemnon’s filicide.
Let me linger on this added Act, not just because Icke does, but because it’s the most intriguing part of the production.
In the first scene, after the entire cast assembles on the stage and, in keeping with avant-garde tradition, stares blankly at us, intoning different words for God (“Zeus. Allah. El. Jehovah.” Etc.) Calchas (Michael Abubakar) the seer recites the prophecy to Agamemnon (a low-key persuasive Angus Wright):
“By his hand alone. The child is the price. Fair winds.”
“Fair winds is winning the war,” Agamemnon says to Calchas, seeking reassurance.
“Winning, yes, very likely. Winds, wins: similar in sound. “
Agamemnon has his doubts, but his aides (including his brother Menaleus) urge him to kill Iphigenia for the sake of the war effort; their arguments sound like the kind of bloodless political advice from aides/co-conspirators with which we’ve lately become quite familiar.
His wife Klytemnestra (standout Anastasia Hille, often devastating) figures out what he’s planning to do, and argues against it, using logic at first: “Why can’t the god just take her life himself?…. it’s in your head, there isn’t any evidence”
“The whole world is evidence.”
“The world in which you have to kill your child? You get down on your knees every night and you pray – but let’s call god by his real name, call him the way we actually live our lives, the things you actually serve – call him money, call him power, call him wars against the weak.”
Agamemnon becomes adamant: “Their people, our people, the soldiers, you’d have them die and all so she can live. But we lose this war, and my daughter, she’ll be lucky if all she is is dead. “
And then we watch as Agamemnon and a woman poison the young child, by handing her three paper cups, as if administering medicine at a clinic.
A LED display digital clock pops up on stage: “IPHIGENIA. TIME OF DEATH: ” with the exact date and time in real time — the first of several such messages throughout the play.
The sequence of events puts a thought-provoking contemporary spin, sometimes slyly and darkly humorous, on everything from war to politics to organized religion to modern medicine to family dynamics.
The production might have worked better if it had stopped at Act I. It could have been presented as an original play by Robert Icke, a prequel and a response to a classic Greek tragedy. But Icke was committed to presenting “Oresteia” too.
Robert Icke takes liberties. He did so last year, also at the Park Avenue Armory, in his adaptation of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” (which I loved), and in his 2017 Broadway adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” (which I didn’t love.) And he is taking liberties with Aeschylus. His version of the trilogy seems influenced by a hodgepodge of screen genres. It is framed as a series of sessions between Orestes (Luke Treadaway) and an apparent therapist (Kirsty Rider) trying to recover his repressed traumatic memories, meant perhaps as a psychological mystery. It includes a family drama-like confrontation between Orestes’ sister Electra (Tia Bannon) and the mute savage Cassandra (Hara Yannas) whom Agamemnon has brought home from the war: “Is my dad fucking you? Are you in love?“ Klytemnestra (Anastasia Hille), like a modern politician’s wife, gives an interview on TV (live video monitors abound) talking candidly about her suicide attempt. Act IV, the final scene, is a prolonged, not entirely coherent courtroom drama.
I’m not sure when it was exactly that I threw up my hands (mentally) and admitted to myself: This is too much for me. I was impressed by some of the acting. The design was sleek. There were a few captivating moments, and overall a prestige aura to the enterprise, not least because it is playing in repertory with “Hamlet.” But this version of the tragic trilogy moved me neither to fear nor pity. It just felt overwhelming.
I frankly don’t know if my reaction would have been different had I seen the production at the Almeida in England when it debuted in 2015, or had it come to New York as planned in 2020. Much has been written about how the company had to pivot because of the pandemic, with cast infections and other injuries resulting in delayed performances and replacements. It didn’t seem to occur to the creative team that maybe the audience might need to pivot too, to something not quite as long, taxing, and confusing.
In repertory with Hamlet at Park Avenue Armory through August 13
Running time: 3 hours and 30 minutes with two (2) intermissions and one (1) pause.
Tickets: $45 – $199
Written (“after Aeschylus”) and directed by Robert Icke
Sets and costumes by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting by Natasha Chivers, sound by Tom Gibbons, video by Tim Reid
Cast: Anastasia Hille as Klytemnestra, Angus Wright as Agamemnon and Aegisthus, Tia Bannon as Electra, Luke Treadaway as Orestes, Michael Abubakar as Calchas, Kirsty Rider as Doctor, Elyana Faith Randolph or Alexis Rae Forlenza as Iphigenia, Hudson Paul or Wesley Holloway as Young Orestes, Peter Wight as Menaleus, Joshua Higgins as Talthybias, Marty Cruikshank as Cilissa/Fury, Hara Yannas as Cassandra/Athene, Calum Finla, Gilbert Kyem Jur, Ross Waiton
Photographs by Joan Marcus.