Some thoughts on the Almeida’s Oresteia from someone who knows nothing about Greek tragedy, who has only seen two before and who severely disliked one and fell asleep in the other.
I persuade my brother to come with me to this, only telling him how long it is after he agrees. After 3 hours and 40 minutes, bums numb and bodies tired from being nervous, we stand up. There’s a moment of silence. ‘I think we should read a synopsis’.
The first half an hour of Robert Icke’s production is glorious to watch. It’s so busy. The movement (not physical theatre but doing so many things at once with such speed) builds these complex lives. In a scene where only two people are present on paper, seven are on stage.
A long white table with benches either side sit in front of a step up to a glass wall, the kind of glass wall you wouldn’t be surprised to see James Bond appear from behind. It slides across and is transparent and then opaque and occasionally flashes like a memory lapse or a camera flash.
The cutting up of the text allows it to reveal bits of the story like a murder mystery, letting us piece together the relationships and passing of time. The intervals are laced in as breaks from a courtroom. The illusion built isn’t broken by the intervals. Some actors remain onstage in character. Agamemnon’s body is stretchered off rather than having him simply stand and walk off. The tension is kept by the countdown at every break, projected on screens around us. It’s a great crowd control, as well as adding to the sense of our impending doom. As soon as it gets to 5 seconds the room is silent.
The score is on the edge of being so subtle that you don’t notice there’s a string being played high up in the register, but then choral music swells and takes your attention. It’s delicately done. Having the little girl singing the song that I’ve always connected with that joyful scene in Love Actually is eerie. Her voice stands out and swim around your head. They have some great dums and whooshes that coincide with lighting changes, like the sound of a profound thought being thrown against the glass. I jump at one blackout (with a particularly good ‘dum’, more like a ‘DUMMM’) and again when he screams ‘I was wrong’ and the door swings open and light bursts through and papers fly everywhere.
The black and white colour palette makes the red cloak and sticky blood (spoiler alert, people die) and red wine stand out more. It’s a bit like in Schindler’s List, using the bright red against the monochrome as a sign to say ‘THIS IS IMPORTANT, LOOK AT THIS’.
“This was always going to happen”
The sense of impending doom is perhaps overdone. Yes it’s a tragedy. We know everyone’s going to die. But still. The innocence of Iphigenia’s teddy is lovely but it does feel a bit like an incredibly obvious example of Chekhov’s gun- I was just waiting for it to be ripped up and decimated and be symbolic.
I find the religion bit hard to grasp. In the modern Western world (in which this seems to be roughly set, maybe a bit timeless and spaceless), most people are not so religiously inclined as to believe in signs from gods in dreams. The religiosity and modernity don’t quite blend together, particularly in the final scene where judgement is all about God rather than morality.
Agamemnon has massive hands. Clytemnestra is pretty tiny but his hands are literally enormous. They are quite distracting.
This is more than just a fractured family. This is a-normal-amount-of-troubled-family turned shattered psychopaths.
Moments stand out. Orestes’ description of people as shells. The children’s shoes left in the corner. The speed with which Agamemnon goes from bath to deadness. The ritual of shaking the bell, bringing out the tablecloth, laying it out with the glasses and the pouring of the blood red wine. The moment where the reflection in the glass is used to give depth, reflecting the characters in front of the glass so they look as if they’re sharing the space behind. It’s a lovely way to put together the dead and the living.
There’s a speech by Orestes where he says a situation will seem different to everyone depending on what happened to them that day, what they had for lunch, what their last thought was before this one. “It all floods in”, he says. It changes how we see things. It changes the stories of our lives, just as it changes every single audience member’s opinion of the same play.
But there’s still something about it that doesn’t make the time fly by. And I’m still not certain what that is. I’ll think about it.
At the curtain call the little boy playing young Orestes looks so proud, he’s beaming. 3 hours and 40 minutes are almost worth it for that alone.
Trafalgar Studios 09/09/15