Since Aeschylus’ trilogy “Oresteia” isn’t long enough, Robert Icke’s new update gives it a prequel. What is merely talked about in “Agamemnon,” the first play in the trilogy, is now played out on stage for 80 minutes, leaving only 155 minutes for the actual trilogy. Aeschylus, on the other hand, got right to it in his original: An angry Klytemnestra waits for Agamemnon to return from war in Troy so she can immediately kill him for having murdered their young daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon’s justification is that the gods told him to do it, otherwise he’d lose the war. Klytemnestra’s justification is that her husband is a jerk. And so this revenge and retaliation story will go for the rest of the night.
Icke’s “Oresteia” opened Tuesday at the Park Avenue Armory after productions at the Almeida Theatre and the West End in London. “Oresteia” is a classic because Aeschylus knew what he was doing, and he must have known that going back to what set off this tragedy is going to weight things in the mother’s favor. It’s best to have Klytemnestra tell us about it and then put her head on the chopping block with her own more immediate crime.
Icke does spare us one other thing that Aeschylus had his characters muse over. Even before the murder of Iphigenia, Thyestes, who was the father of Aegisthus, who is Klytemnestra’s lover, was tricked into eating two of his sons by his brother Atreus, who was the father of Agamemnon. It’s that kind of story.
When “Oresteia” had its world premiere in 5th century BC, did the audience see this mad family as anything but extraordinary?
Icke turns the whole enterprise into a British kitchen-sink drama, albeit one staged at 10 Downing Street. Agamemnon’s older daughter Electra (Tia Bannon) has a problem making it to the dinner table on time, much to the parental dismay of her father (Angus Wright) and Klytemnestra (Anastasia Hille). Her brother, Orestes (Hudson Paul and Wesley Holloway alternate as the young version) has some learning disability and keeps talking to an in-house Doctor (Kirsty Rider) who wander the stage and is never identified except in the Playbill. Iphigenia (Elyana Faith Randolph and Alexis Rae Forlenza alternate) is too young to drink the wine she craves, but does get to indulge her penchant for listening to the Beach Boys.
Icke goes into excruciating detail about how painless the drugs are that will take Iphigenia’s young life. Then he gives us a 15-minute intermission before his “Oresteia” gets to the opening scene of Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon.” It’s then that we learn how Klytemnestra is the forerunner of Betty Ford. Although it’s possible that she, too, is a chronic alcoholic – this family doesn’t eat much, but they’re forever drinking wine – her big cause is mental illness, and she has been open with the public about her own health problems over the past 10 years. She even appears on TV to discuss the issue with brave frankness.
Icke also directs, and one of the clichés of his “Oresteia” is the hand-held camera that follows this political family. (Video design is by Tim Reid.) When they are on camera, Agamemnon and Klytemnestra take on the double-speak of a Mitch McConnell or a Susan Collins. They may be ancient, but they’re so contemporary.
To make his drama even more of the moment, Icke puts big digital clocks onstage that give us the exact time of each murder, right down to the precise second. These clocks are also useful during intermissions for anyone needing a bathroom break. (Set design is by Hildegard Bechtler.)
Since the occasional performance of “Elektra” at the Met Opera is one of the few opportunities New Yorkers have to visit this classic story, it is interesting to see what happens before and after Richard Strauss’ far more thrilling work. At major moments in Icke’s play, Tom Gibbons’ sound design attempts to replicate some of those dissonant shock chords. They are loud and jolting, indeed, especially when designer Natasha Chivers turns the lights off abruptly and just as abruptly turns them back on.
Wright makes an especially understated Agamemnon, although sometimes he’s too subtle in his approach. It’s not always evident when he is playing Agamemnon or his ghost – or Aegisthus or his ghost. Hille is fine when she’s doing her First Lady thing. Later, she pales in comparison to any Klytemnestra I’ve ever seen in any production of “Elektra.” Then again, Strauss gives his wicked mother the best entrance music ever written.
A real delight for all the wrong reasons is the brief appearance of Hara Yannas as Cassandra. Icke’s brilliant idea here is that Cassandra is somehow linked to Ighigenia: They both wear yellow dresses and they both can’t get enough of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” (Costumes are also by Bechtler.) More significant is Yannas’ performance. If you thought that actor playing the Irish barmaid in “Paradise Square” knew how to rip up the stage, wait till you see and hear Yannas. This war orphan-turned-kept woman-turned-clairvoyant is either speaking gibberish or Yannas needs to take Afghan-accent lessons from the current Broadway cast of “The Kite Runner.”