The Iphigenia Quartet

Gate Theatre, Notting Hill (****)

© Helen Murray, Susie Trayling (Clytemnestra), Anthony Barclay (Agamemnon), Shannon Tarbet (Iphigenia)

© Helen Murray,
Susie Trayling (Clytemnestra), Anthony Barclay (Agamemnon), Shannon Tarbet (Iphigenia) in Iphigenia by Suhayla El-Bushra

The Gate Notting Hill’s dynamic artistic director Christopher Haydon has taken a mighty gamble with this commission, Iphigenia at Aulis reflected through a fresh, contemporary prism from the point of view of each protagonist: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia and the Chorus.

On the whole it comes off, a startling re-alignment of characters and commentary, if a demanding one. Four playwrights then with four new plays, each forty minutes long, run as separate double-bills or all four over a Saturday matinee and evening.

Seen all at one sitting, the major impact, directed at heat, though is one of almost ironic post-modern over-kill. Each writer, it seems, has been heavily influenced by it to some extent, none more so than Chris Thorpe’s final Chorus, a dazzling but at times almost brutally incomprehensible account in verse of the story told also as a comment on our voyeuristic modern world through the web and social media. Everything can be seen, observed in a trice then spliced into video clips. Or as created in computer games, our emotions projected onto digitalised fantasy characters, emotions and living at second hand:

`We want to see the dark conclusion
Of course we would watch reluctantly
If the worst came true, we would steel ourselves
Respect her dignity, but stream it.’

The original story presents a classic case of political versus private politics. The Greek army, lined up on a beach to act against Troy for the `abduction’ by Paris of the Greek Queen, Helen, is faced with becalmed weather. The solution, according to the Oracle must be Agamemnon, the army’s General sacrificing his only daughter, Iphigenia. The consequence of this action will lead ultimately to the savagery of The Oresteia, and the fall of the House of Atreus.

But here, in the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice we have the nub, the action that will precipitate future events. Decisions have consequences, these plays tell us, on a grand and very domestic scale and it’s fascinating to watch how and where four of today’s most radical young writers choose to place their emphasis.

© Helen Murray, Andrew French (Agamemnon), Nigel Barrett (Menelaus)

© Helen Murray,
Andrew French (Agamemnon), Nigel Barrett (Menelaus) in Agamemnon by Caroline Bird

Caroline Bird’s Agamemnon for example upgrades the Messenger (female) making her sound virulently patriotic. Menelaus becomes brutish, Agamemnon’s agony is expressed through drink, Sharon Duncan Brewster’s Clytemnestra becomes shrewish.

Lulu Raczka’s Clytemnestra reworks the moment a mother discovers her daughter is to die and moves it into a life-changer for those observing it, a maid and a soldier. Told by a film director, pitching for a big screen conversion – `we need a new angle and the new angle is women’ – and a female academic giving a lecture , it becomes a harrowing study in grief.

© Helen Murray, Anthony Barclay (Director), Shannon Tarbet (Maid) in Clytemnestra by Lulu Razcka

© Helen Murray,
Anthony Barclay (Director), Shannon Tarbet (Maid) in Clytemnestra by Lulu Razcka

Suhayla El-Bushra’s Iphigenia, the centre piece of the narrative, is perhaps the most immediately violent in its depiction of the nuclear family, ruled by a dominating Agamemnon, fearful Clytemnestra with Iphigenia portrayed as an anorexic inclined pale, dutiful daughter whose ultimate willingness to be sacrificed can be seen as a glorious statement of her right to exist.

Packed full, as you might expect, of insights into power, public, political and sexual, it’s a triumph as concept, furious and fast-moving. Greek tragedy for a new world order.

The Iphigenia Quartet runs at the Gate, Notting Hill to May 21, 2016

Review first published in Reviewsgate, May 2016 and slightly amended here.

The Iphigenia Quartet:
By Caroline Bird, Lulu Raczka, Suhayla El-Bushra, Chris Thorpe

Agamemnon (by Caroline Bird) & Chorus (by Chris Thorpe)
Menelaus & Voice: Nigel Barrett
Clytemnestra & Voice: Sharon Duncan-Brewster
Agamemnon & Voice: Andrew French
Messenger & Voice: Louise McMenemy

Iphigenia (by Suhayla El-Bushra) & Clytemnestra (by Lulu Raczka)Agamemnon & Director: Anthony Barclay
Iphigenia & Maid: Shannon Tarbet
Clytemnestra & Professor: Susie Trayling
Achilles & Soldier: Dwane Walcott

Director (Agamemnon): Christopher Haydon
Director (Clytemnestra): Jennifer Tang
Director (Iphigenia): Rebecca Hill
Director (Chorus): Elayce Ismall
Designer: Cécile Trémolières
Lighting Designer: Joshua Pharo
Sound Designer: Elena Peña
Movement Director: Aline David
Dialect Coach: Hazel Holder
Fight Choreographer: Yarit Dor