Jethro Compton returns to the Fringe this year to direct and produce a trilogy of plays staged in a specially built First World War bunker. Agamemnon, adapted by Jamie Wilkie, transposes its protagonist from the Trojan War to the trenches in France. Set during battle rather than after armistice, this twist on Aeschylus’ first section of the Oresteia is a tense naturalistic drama that radically tears up the source material and re-imagines it with searing psychological intrigue. Inspired inversions of plot and character make it an engaging and constantly unsettling experience that’ll keep audiences on the edge of their wooden crates, regardless of how well they know the original.
The characters are unnamed, which removes the risk of any dodgy collision of the classical and the contemporary – a northern ‘Clytemnestra’ would sound grating, and equally giving us, say, ‘Alfred’ and ‘Clare’ would’ve been a contrived cop-out. Here they’re just a young couple who like many others have their marriage tested when our man, a charming and troubled Yorkshire lad played by James Marlowe, enlists and leaves his pregnant wife to keep the home fires burning.
The play opens with a wounded Agamemnon, and what follows is a combination of the daily drudging terror of the trenches and a series of fragmented flashbacks to the start of his marriage. As his paranoia and very real pain intensify, we’re shown a series of cross-cut scenes that trace his wife’s loneliness at home and her growing relationship with his distant cousin. Separated by seas but united in their isolation, the couple haunt one another’s lives until each reaches a terrible breaking point.
Marlowe makes a multi-layered, often likeable Agamemnon, and the versatile Serena Manteghi invokes real sympathy for Clytemnestra, who in this version is granted perceivable motives for her actions. Dan Wood provides comic relief as a chivalrous but socially awkward Aegisthus, giving the piece a rich tonal range that enhances the eventual tragedy.
It’s brilliantly designed and expertly engineered, with attention to detail that renders the production a truly immersive experience. Under a corrugated iron roof and surrounded by dirt, wooden planks and sandbags, the sounds of war drum around us in a way that evokes real tension as well as externalising Agamemnon’s psyche. Whilst Compton’s previous work has often been interactive – the divisive The Boy James required its audience to play games with the cast and at one point read out a letter – Agamemnon’s persistently nail-biting atmosphere, as well as the spectator’s sheer proximity to the action, brings the audience in with a furious, inescapable force.