Almeida Theatre, London

© Manuel Harlan

© Manuel Harlan

Embarking on an ambitious programme of Greek tragedies, I can’t imagine Rupert Goold’s constantly excelling Almeida can possibly come up with anything more trenchant or magnificent as this new version by Robert Icke of Aeschylus’ harrowing Oresteia.

Yet the magnificence lies not so much in Icke’s rendition of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes as mythic archetypes but rather as contemporary, flesh and blood, psychologically complex individuals with recognisable latter-day parallels. Listen to Angus Wright’s leader being interviewed about his sense of rightness in pursuing a war to win and Blair, Cameron et al can’t help but spring to mind.

Icke’s intelligent supple adaptation is also very European in its sensibilities. Like Iva van Hove with his Amsterdam Toneelgroep’s Roman Tragedies (Barbican 2009) and this year’s Antigone, he strips it down to bare but astute basics: conversational, dominated by Hildegard Bechtler’s family dining table and perspex sliding doors with video-cam for up-close-and-personal.

Thematically, it is also as though we were following a therapy session as Orestes searches for truth in memories of family trauma he’d rather not remember.

R D Laing would have loved Icke’s nuanced re-emphasising of the nuclear family as the crucible of emotional pain and life-long guilt – if less of the sense of fate inexorably bearing down on us.

Such determinism is out of fashion. But Icke’s careful, at times gut-wrenching approach ensures this family’s violent if comprehensible responses become all too human and immediate starting with Agamemnon/Wright’s personal agonies over sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, to the public good, thus setting in motion the cycle of bloody revenge to follow.

As Clytemnestra, Lia Williams is astounding, a superb chameleon of emotional disguise whose warm smile and perfect mother/wife veneer covers a hideous sense of moral outrage. `It was all lies’, she tells us exalting in the freedom she now feels after murdering her husband.

© Manuel Harlan

© Manuel Harlan

Stunning as a ring-side view into the intimacies of marriage and the often unheard female voice, this Oresteia is also plangent in the parental legacies bequeathed to Electra (a moving Jessica Brown Findlay) and Orestes, the son who ultimately commits matricide but in Luke Thompson’s heartfelt Hamlet-like portrayal becomes the young man needing to atone for a murdered father but instead paralysed by emotional trauma.


Runs at the Almeida to July 15, 2015

First published in Reviewsgate, June, 2015