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Winter 2016

Aeschylus and Freud

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Steve Vineberg

by Aeschylus,
adapted and directed by Robert Icke.
Almeida Theatre, London, 2015.

Robert Icke’s modern version of Aeschylus’s Oresteia—which opened at London’s Almeida Theatre in late spring and moved to the West End at the end of the summer—clocks in at three hours and forty minutes, and for most of it you can barely hear the people around you breathing. It’s a thrilling theatrical experience, and sometimes a terrifying one, too, as the story of the cursed house of Atreus erupts in vengeful bloodshed and psychological devastation. Aeschylus’s work is the only true Greek tragic trilogy that has survived (the three parts of what we refer to as the Theban trilogy—Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone—were written at different times in Sophocles’ career, and not in order), and it has served since its origin as a definition of the dramatic principle of cause and effect. In the first play, the Agamemnon, the king of Argos returns from the Trojan War and is murdered by his queen, Klytemnestra, with the help of her lover Aegisthus; this act, which reactivates the curse on the royal house brought on by the monstrous actions of Agamemnon’s forebears, is provoked, in part if not completely, by Klytemnestra’s unabated fury at her husband for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia in order to secure fair winds for the Greek army sailing to Troy. In the second part of the trilogy, The Libation Bearers, Agamemnon’s son Orestes, with the encouragement of his sister Electra, kills their mother and Aegisthus to avenge their father’s death. The matricide provokes the Furies—vampirical demi-goddesses whose closest equivalent in modern literature is probably the Dementors in the Harry Potter series—to pursue Orestes; he sues to Apollo, his champion, to release him from their assaults, and the case goes up before Athena’s court, the Areopagus. When Athena casts the deciding vote in Orestes’ favor and turns the Furies into the benevolent spirits the Eumenides (in the third play, which is named for them), the cycle of bloody revenge shuts down. This staggering work of dramatic poetry and imagination, which moves inexorably from horror to horror but also—finally—from chaos into order, was written in 458 B.C., and it’s easy to argue that no one, not even Sophocles or Euripides or Shakespeare, has ever surpassed it.

Icke’s modern-dress adaptation, which he also directed, is in three acts, but we don’t get the Agamemnon until the second one, and act three includes the material from both The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, with a brief pause in between. The first act is devoted to the sacrifice of Iphigenia, which Aeschylus alludes to but doesn’t dramatize. (Aeschylus called the plays “slices from the banquet of Homer,” but the idea of Iphigenia’s death as a motivation for Klytemnestra’s behavior was the playwright’s invention, and it makes the queen infinitely more complex than she is in the Iliad.) In this act, Iphigenia and Orestes are small children and Electra (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a somewhat rebellious teenager who chafes against her mother’s demands. The war Greece is about to wage against Troy is an unpopular cause. When the oracle calls for the sacrifice of a virgin and Iphigenia’s name is drawn by lottery, Agamemnon (Angus Wright) is persuaded by his advisors, including his brother Menelaus (John Mackay), that he has no choice. Aeschylus may not have written the speech in which Menelaus wins over Agamemnon, but Icke has paid close attention to his Greek models: it’s a beautifully crafted piece of dramatic oratory that offers several precisely honed arguments and appeals equally to reason (the king may believe that he is robbing his daughter of her future, but failing to sacrifice her will doom her to the status of a pariah) and emotion (by fearlessly going through with the sacrifice, Agamemnon will make himself the greatest of all leaders). But when Klytemnestra (Lia Williams), hearing him shout in his sleep, “A child is the price,” figures out what he has in mind, she mocks his justifications as sophistry. She shreds his argument to its innards, but she knows that her words will have no effect, that Iphigenia has been “dead from the beginning,” her loss preordained not by the gods but by her husband’s pride and lust for power. This act is a withering indictment of politics, and its portrayal of Klytemnestra as a mother whose impulse to protect her child, but also as a wife who is obliged by her position to support her husband publicly, provides an entirely new psychological realm for the actress to investigate, even as it carefully underscores the sacrifice of Iphigenia as the queen’s true motivating factor. Aeschylus provided two other reasons for Klytemnestra to kill her husband: the fact that she has replaced Agamemnon in the royal bed during his absence with Aegisthus, and the presence of Cassandra, the Trojan princess the king brings home as a slave and his mistress (and whom the queen and Aegisthus also murder on the night of the homecoming).

Once Klytemnestra opts to stand behind her husband, she buries her feelings. When he comes home in act two, she welcomes him publicly, just as she does in Aeschylus, making a moving public speech about the men who didn’t return, about the empty chair at the table. In Aeschylus, everything Klytemnestra says before she wields the axe to slaughter Agamemnon in his bath has a double meaning, and here we can read the image of the empty chair as a reference to Iphigenia (especially since, in the first act, we saw the royal family interacting around the dinner table). But whereas the true emotion beneath the character’s stated joy at the homecoming is savage anger, in Icke’s version it appears to be a deep, unstanched sorrow. (We hear that the queen tried to kill herself at one point, though the official story is that she was in despair over her husband’s long absence.) Lia Williams plays the character’s sadness brilliantly against the façade of patriotic joy at the end of the war; it’s a remarkable, multi-faceted performance—until the end of the act and the murders of Agamemnon and Cassandra, when it becomes, amazingly, much more. Dragging the king’s bloody corpse downstage wrapped in a winding sheet, she asserts that everything she’s said up to this point has been a string of lies—to Agamemnon, to her family, to the public, and to herself. It turns into a scene of violent triumph as she proclaims herself free and, sounding the note of dramatic irony that Aeschylus wrote for the character, “this house…set in order once and for all.” I saw Williams twenty years ago, as an ingenue, opposite Michael Gambon in the original production of David Hare’s Skylight, and I was impressed by her work, though it was inevitably eclipsed by the flamboyant mastery of Gambon’s. I didn’t see her act in the intervening years, so I wasn’t prepared for the frighteningly concentrated power of her rendition of this scene, which is like a lightning stroke, or for the range and invention of her performance overall. This is one of the greatest displays of acting I’ve ever witnessed in the theater.

The chief way in which Icke modernizes the material is by adding a Freudian level. (A less successful contemporary intrusion is the shift from the ancient Greek gods to a multicultural list of deities, all of whom are called on in the opening moments of the play and again at the beginning of Orestes’ trial.) Throughout the first two acts, occasionally interrupting the linear action, Orestes (Luke Thomp-son) interacts with a woman (Lorna Brown) who is attempting to help him remember the murders of his mother and her lover, which the trauma has repressed. For a long time we assume that she is his therapist. Since the myth that Aeschylus dramatized in The Oresteia, like the one Sophocles adapted for Oedipus the King, is a Freudian touchstone, Icke is being enormously clever here in using this frame to bridge the trilogy with the modern consciousness. It isn’t until act three that Icke reveals that the woman interrogating Orestes isn’t a therapist at all but one of two prosecuting attorneys at his trial (the other is played, appropriately, by Williams, and Wright takes the role of Orestes’ lawyer). And the Brechtian elements that have puzzled and fascinated us from the outset—the digital clock above the set that registers the time of death of each of the victims, beginning with Iphigenia (Clara Read), and the visual numbering of pieces of evidence—link up at last with the narrative. The defendant’s story, when he recalls what happened in Argos, is that his sister Electra helped him perpetrate the vengeance against their father’s killers, but eventually the primary prosecutor insists that no evidence has been uncovered of the existence of any other sibling besides the long-dead Iphigenia, that Electra is a fabrication his mind constructed out of an inability to confront the guilty truth about what he had done. This may be one more strand of plot than the play needs, but I loved the way this twist “explains” the omission of Electra from the Agamemnon (which is one of the intriguing oddities of Aeschylus’ work), even though it also presents a narrative problem: if what we see from the beginning is Orestes’ warped memory of events, what about the scenes he couldn’t have seen, the adult interactions he could hardly have understood as a little boy?

The clock has another function as well. By drawing our attention to the literal, present-day passage of time (it runs on real time, i.e., time in the world beyond the bounds of the stage), it counterpoints and ironically emphasizes the timelessness of the trilogy, the tendrils of which creep out from the grave of the age in which it was written originally, the golden age of Athens, and stretch across the eons to us who watch it unfold two and a half millennia later. The trial of Orestes seems to be occurring outside time, in a space circumscribed by a nameless judge to whom the lawyers on both sides refer as “my lady” and who is, of course, Icke’s rendering of Athena (played by Hara Yannas, who is Cassandra in the second act). But they, along with Orestes, are also talking to us—the latest audience for The Oresteia, the ones whose task it is now to weigh the evidence anew and judge the actions of the characters, just as it is our fate now to be moved to pity and terror by the story.

Hildegarde Bechtler’s set is spare, with only a few pieces of metal furniture and, of course, Agamemnon’s bathtub. Two sheets of mylar upstage, one behind the other, permit the simultaneous presence of mirror reflections and planes of imagery that reinforce the idea that this is a ghost story, the genesis of the theme of the past haunting the present that has dominated western drama ever since Aeschylus. Sometimes the mylar (in tandem with the exquisite precision of Icke’s staging) complicates the stage image in dazzling ways, as when, in act three, Electra and Orestes stand at their father’s grave, reflected in the mylar, while upstage of it Klytemnestra awakes in Aegisthus’s arms after her nightmare about suckling a snake that bites her breast, a premonition—here as in the original Aeschylus—of her death at the hands of her own son. Klytemnestra and Aegisthus, too, are doubled by their upstage reflections, and then Iphigenia appears in the farthest upstage plane, singing the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” which she first performed for her father early in act one. The multi-leveled stage picture is stunning. Iphigenia is a recurring specter in this production, never forgotten, her death the source of so much grief and anger. Repeated actions, like the pouring of red wine at the royal table of Argos, emulate the mirror effect; so does the double casting of Angus Wright (a tall, imposing figure as well as a fine actor) as both Agamemnon and his paltry replacement, Aegisthus.

The play is performed by an ensemble of sixteen actors. The only ones I had trouble with were Luke Thompson and Hara Yannas, who both seemed, at least on the night I saw the show, to be working too hard, admittedly in extremely challenging roles. But the Cassandra scenes are the only ones that don’t work; in the second half of the last act, the trial section, there are so many ideas swirling around the character of Orestes that the self-consciousness of Thompson’s acting isn’t much of an impediment. At the end Icke throws in one last modernist touch. Aeschylus’s Oresteia may complete the trajectory from chaos to order, but in Icke’s version, even after Orestes is released at the eleventh hour, through the judge’s tie-breaking vote, he is left alone on the stage after everyone else has exited, repeating over and over, “What did I do?” Once the myth has crossed over from Greek drama to the modern neurotic age, Icke seems to be saying, any possibility of resolution is no longer possible. Tragedy resides forever in the guilt and confusion of the human psyche; Aeschylus beds down with Freud for eternity.

Steve Vineberg teaches drama and film at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has written for The Threepenny Review since 1983.

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