The woes of the house of Atreus have proved a fertile source of inspiration over the centuries. And no real surprise there. Sex, murder, vengeance, torment, guilt – the story’s got the lot. And helpfully Goethe’s version of Euripides’ tale from towards the end of the saga includes quite a lot of recapping for those who weren’t paying attention in double Classics.
In short, having very nearly been sacrificed by her father Agamemnon in order to secure a decent wind to waft the Greek forces to Troy, Iphigenia is now paying her dues to the goddess Diana (who rescued her from the sacrificial knife) by staffing the latter’s sacred precinct in barbarous Tauris. All’s well until Thoas, the local king (and old enough to be her father), takes it into his head to propose marriage and Iphigenia turns him down. This prompts Thoas to reinstate the ancient law that Iphigenia’s arrival prompted him to rescind: any stranger landing in Tauris will be put to death, no questions asked. Naturally, the first stranger to arrive is Iphigenia’s brother Orestes, who, having avenged his father’s murder by killing his mother Clytemnestra, is being pursued by the Furies – and whose presence puts his sister in a dilemma: can she help him without betraying Thoas, who, despite his inappropriate proposal, has protected her from his bloodthirsty subjects?
This being Goethe’s version of the story, some rather lengthy moral debate ensues, before a denouement which is poignant but noticeably less dramatic than Euripides’ original deus ex machina. As a play, then, Iphigenia is pretty static and wordy stuff, and it’s a measure of the assuredness of Laurence Boswell’s production that he doesn’t try to spice things up with any gimmickry or unnecessary business. Similarly, Meredith Oakes’ new translation, although written in verse, plays down any Goethe-ish flourishes in favour of a robust vernacular: it’s not as robust (or as vernacular) as Tony Harrison’s visceral rendering of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, but it does the job in unshowy but effective style. An altar serves for set (although some ugly-looking hooks dangle ominously over the second half), some nuanced lighting eases through the mood changes, and the whole production has an air of elegantly austere restraint.
In a way, though, that’s also a problem: everything’s just a little bit too buttoned up. This, of course, is mainly due to Goethe having rewritten Euripides’ play as a sort of eighteenth- century costume drama, but while there’s no doubt about the emotion seething beneath the surface, that’s where it pretty much stays throughout. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t some very fine performances here. As fragile as a china doll at the start, Laura Rees’ Iphigenia steadily grows in stature as the play progresses, taking on Thoas and finally convincing him into a final scene volte face. If her delivery occasionally becomes rather hieratic, that’s only appropriate (she is a priestess, after all), and those moments are matched with those of tenderness and reflection. Tom Mothersdale’s Orestes is convincing in his torment, especially when, in a Macbeth-esque moment, he conjures up a vision of his dead ancestors – and he also gets an admirable sidekick in the form of Adam Jackson-Smith’s decisive, pragmatic Pylades. Christopher Hunter as Thoas and David Fielder as Arkas never quite suggest that they and their supposedly bloodthirsty fellow Scythians were anything more than politely barbarous, but they’re both solid, measured portrayals, and Hunter’s growing bemusement at Iphigenia’s (to him) stubborn resistance is nicely handled.
Although you’d be hard-pressed to call it the definitive Iphigenia for our times, this is certainly a very well-made and well-rounded production. Clear storytelling and sterling performances go a long way, and if it’s not entirely clear what drove Boswell when choosing to produce the play now, it is at least interesting to see what a twenty-first-century translator, director and cast make of an eighteenth-century German poet’s version of a fifth-century BC Greek drama.