One of those childhood fantasies I’ll embarrassingly admit to having never quite shaken is the absolute conviction that behind every mirror is an opposite world, in which I’m right-handed or words are backwards. Behind the mirror that Robert Icke’s Oresteia sets up there is this world: a warped and uncanny version of our own. The big themes of Icke’s adaptation are obvious: what is justice? Is it ever right to kill? How can an unjust deed go unpunished? But it isn’t these that make his Oresteia so grippingly, thrillingly good.
ἀρα Κασανδρα εἰμι βλυζων και τε ἀληθειαν χενῃ γλωσσῃ λαλαγων;
τις με ἀκουει;
Am I Cassandra, blurting and babbling the truth in a foreign tongue?
Who can hear me?
Icke’s turned it into a crossing point of light and shadows, of reverses and obverses, of selves and reflections of those selfsame selves. Like the reflective glass French windows, huge sliding panes in Hildegard Bechtler’s set, which shine our own staring faces back to us and show us that we are just watchers – avid or bored – but still only spectators; like those windows the epic trilogy is a mirror on our own time. Just as tragedy, at its very best, should be.
ἀντὶ δὲ φωτῶν τεύχη καὶ σποδὸς εἰς ἑκάστου δόμους ἀφικνεῖται
Each returns home as ashes and urns, not as living men
We stage these things because the past insists on repeating itself. Agamemnon is a modern politician, speaking with the weaselly turns of phrase that modern politicians speak with, giving the evasive reasons for making a controversial decision. He is most strongly Blair, truly believing in what he’s doing but reading the signs wrong. He put his faith in god and a dodgy dossier. His reward was not victory – as Agamemnon got – but catastrophic error. And death. We are consuming an entire boxset of House of Cards in one sitting. We watch politicians and the lengths they’ll go to for the ends they contrive.
ταυτα γιγνεται. ταυτα γεγονε. ταυτα γενησεται.
These things are happening now. They have happened before and they will happen again.
The opening lines put the play into a religious context, just as ancient tragedy had (performed as part of a festival to Dionysus), and makes the case that though we call our gods by different names we still look to them to guide us. It’s always been the same. Looking to something higher. Agamemnon and Menelaus pray like religious fanatics, like men who think that human sacrifice can win them a war. Transposed to a contemporary setting, this faith in the power of sacrifice is hard to believe in. They seem like fundamentalists, like zealots. The first part of the play, the section retelling the story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, looks most closely at religion and faith. The characters, either convinced that Iphigenia must be sacrificed into order to win the war or not, read signs from the gods in a way that suits their ends. My life has been full of coincidence recently. While watching the play, as I thought the word ‘root’, Clytemnestra said the word ‘route’. Walking across the Millennium Bridge a couple of months ago, I bumped into a friend exactly in the middle – among the many millions I found him. But are these signs, or just coincidences? Ultimately it comes down to a leap of faith. If you make that leap, these are signs; if not, they remain tantalising coincidences.
πάντων δὲ θεῶν, ὑπάτων, χθονίων, τῶν τ’ οὐρανίων τῶν τ’ ἀγοραίων,
βωμοὶ δώροισι φλέγονται
The altars of all the gods – the supreme gods, the gods of the nether and the ether, the gods of the people – are burning with sacrifices
So many themes are held together in this trilogy. It tries to do so much and actually, overwhelmingly, succeeds. Icke rewards the people who know anything about tragedy, but he also treats those who do not. It comments on itself as being a Greek tragedy with little moments of meta-reflection, like drawing attention to the gaps in the extant texts. Masks are mentioned several times: always metaphorical, that archetypal symbol of the theatre, and also what actors in tragedies used to wear.
Family is a big theme. Family dinner scenes in the house of Atreus turn into an episode of Outnumbered, with the added layer that they’re five of the most famous characters in the history of Western literature. These scenes recreate the chaotic, frayed, perfect/imperfect composition of family bliss. It’s what the tragedies never show: never do we get to see that moment before it all went wrong, that εἰρηνη πριν τον ὀμβρον.
ὑμεῖς μὲν οὐχ ὁρᾶτε τάσδ’, ἐγὼ δ’ ὁρῶ:
ἐλαύνομαι δὲ κοὐκέτ’ ἂν μείναιμ’ ἐγὼ
You do not see them, but I see them.
I am hounded and I can remain no longer.
The idea of a family house is important in tragedies, and plays often focus on the scions of particular noble families and households – the house of Atreus (Agamemnon’s father) or the house of Oedipus. The house can be both literal and figurative; in the Oresteia it’s both. The literal house of Atreus that comprises the set, which is sparse and cold at first, becomes lived in after three and a half hours. The tables have been knocked about, the way the maid spreads the cloth is familiar, we know Agamemnon’s bath robe. It’s a home, with all its attendant memories and rituals and tragedies. In the final act, too, the words ‘this house’ take on an entirely new layer of meaning.
πρὸς ποίαν στέγην; μισόθεον μὲν οὖν, πολλὰ συνίστορα αὐτόφονα κακὰ καρατόμα,
ἀνδροσφαγεῖον καὶ πεδορραντήριον.
What kind of house is this? A godless house, witness to the wicked butchery of kin, a human
abattoir and drenched in blood.
Is it ever justified – is it ever right – to kill? The Greeks argued this argument by twisting the bedtime stories that they knew back to front – the tales of the men from Troy – and using them as metaphors or mirrors to reflect on the thorny issues of contemporary society. And now Icke holds that reflection up to another mirror, the mirror of our own modernity. This is the twisted retelling of a twisted retelling of an ancient, ancient myth.
The past insists on repeating itself
And I’m repeating myself και αὐθις λεγω
because these stories are mirrors
τα κατοπτρα προς ἐμε λαμποντα
they keep on reflecting
δια του χρονου
Amid the glitz of the stunning design and the clever adaptation, it’s something perhaps inadvertent that strikes me most: the lights. Blinking on and off, shining and fading, constellated in the black vaults of the Almeida’s ceiling, they are like the eyes of the Greek gods observing the pathetic folly and moral handwringing of the mortals on stage below. They come and go as their interest dictates. We’re just a game to them, an occasional distraction. The Greeks conceived of eyes as lights, using the same word – ὀμμα – for both. And here they are up above. I’ve caught them in the act.
Causes and effects. Deeds and retribution. Quid pro quo. Eyes. Teeth. ἀντὶ μὲν ἐχθρᾶς γλώσσης
ἐχθρὰ γλῶσσα τελείσθω mirroring on and on through time and I’m repeating myself και αὐθις λεγω
During the death of Iphigenia and a tempestuous climax to the first act it’s easy to forget about metaphor and instead just to soak up the visceral, emetic, religious shock of theatre. To feel completely thrilled. And disgusted. Why are we watching a father kill his little daughter? Icke directs it to perfection. And his text displays a mastery over rhetoric. He mixes the grandiose and epic turns of phrase with conversational hiccups as characters tread on each other’s lines. He confronts the paradoxes of these plays: that the murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are both just and unjust, that the sacrifice of Iphigenia is both religious and unholy. The cast – Lia Williams and Angus Wright particularly – hold the paradoxes in perfect suspense and embody the ambivalence of their extreme deeds.
τὸ μέλλον, ἐπεὶ γένοιτ’, ἂν κλύοις: πρὸ χαιρέτω:
ἴσον δὲ τῷ προστένειν. τορὸν γὰρ ἥξει σύνορθρον αὐγαῖς.
You will learn the future when it comes. Until then, leave it be.
Otherwise it is like weeping before being hurt.
It will come, blinding, together with the light of dawn.
The story of tragedy is the story of repetition. The necessity of tragedy is the inevitability of repetition. The eternal past bursting into a fleeting present. Stories never serve no purpose.