The clock is ticking from the beginning. Robert Icke’s reworking of Aeschylus is bold, accessible, resonant and occasionally thrilling in its staging.
This is the first of three major productions, including versions of the Bakkhai and Medea, which form the core of the summer-long Almeida Greeks season, a programme of performances, talks and readings in which contemporary theatre-makers explore the Ancient Greek canon. It’s an exhilarating way to start things off. While the production is a long one, running at over three and a half hours (with a number of pauses), it is a thing of fine calibration and the length never feels excessive.
Icke’s version of the text is modern and open, straightforward yet elegant in its storytelling. In addition to Aeschylus’ trilogy, it also encompasses Iphigenia at Aulis. So in the first act we witness Agamemnon’s killing of his daughter, Iphigenia, and Klytemnestra raw with grief, howling for her lost child. This frames what is a life-ripe and human production.
There are moments of breath-caught-in-throat tension here – the sequence in which Angus Wright administers the drugs that will end Iphigenia’s life is particularly chilling. Nor is Icke afraid of silence, of giving his performers breathing space.
He draws from his cast some fine performances. When interviewed by the media, Lia Williams, in the role of Klytemnestra, is contained and composed, but pain and grief churn beneath the surface and it is only a matter of time before they overspill. Wright, with his rich, deep voice, is statesman-like and upright but he is also capable of conveying great reservoirs of pain. Jessica Brown Findlay – making her stage debut – in the role of Electra is gifted one of the production’s quieter speeches but one of its most affecting as she tries to articulate the sting of bereavement, the ache of being unfathered.
Icke dusts his production with horror film imagery. There are sudden, startling blackouts, a couple of nods to Japanese horror – briefly we see Electra and Orestes standing twinned in the window like the girls from The Shining, which all feels entirely apt for this bloody cycle of death and retribution. The death of Agamemnon is particularly brutal and haunting, strains of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows playing as Klytemnestra advances on him. It’s a stunning sequence.
Elements of Hildegard Bechtler’s clean minimal design, with its translucent screens and its digital display, its ticking timer, do feel overfamiliar and the production loses energy and momentum in its final act, the trial sequence, but it is here that it is at its most political – making its case as a play for now, living vital theatre – discoursing both on the nature of justice and the nature of stories, our need to keep reworking and retelling them.