Iphigenia In Aulis (Project Arts Centre, Dublin) – A Theatre Review
Shadowy, questionable advisors? A paternalistic elite that thinks it knows best? Horrendous and unjust sacrifices being demanded of the weak and vulnerable? Leaders lacking moral courage? No alternatives?
Yes, the Ancient Greeks have little in common with us.
Set during the preparations for the invasion of Troy, the fleets led by King Agamemnon (Michael Bates) and his brother Menelaus (Neil Hogan) have become becalmed at Aulis. When a seer warns that they have angered the goddess Artemis and that only the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia (Aoife Moore) will bring back the winds, Agamemnon wavers at the horror of what is being demanded of him. However, feeling boxed in, he nonetheless sends for his daughter under false pretences. Bizarrely, though, the king has not counted on his wife Clytemnestra (Lesa Thurman) turning up for her child’s (purported) wedding and his demented, ditchwater-weak plan is exposed in less time than it takes for Achilles to lose his temper over a broken sandal strap or some other such calamity.
If only for it was intended to be a tragedy, it could have been a black screwball comedy that the bold Euripides has penned here.
Indeed, even though it is terribly potent to see Iphigenia gain strength initially from an acceptance of her fate and then by way of a defiant proclamation of her patriotism, the bastards still appear to win here. Even the wind instantaneously picking up would seem to give credence to this appalling notion of the need for the innocent to pay heavily for the mistakes of the guilty. This is to forget, of course, that the siege of Troy would take a decade to reach its conclusion and much more senseless slaughter would be needed to bring that result about. If such things are victory, then we have long since lost.
In this respect, it is worth noting that the hulking dead tree and pitch black earth underfoot, the peasant clothing of the chorus, and the brown shirts of the soldiers all seem to recall another dark period in Europe’s far more recent past. Then, too, there was talk of blood sacrifices and battles against barbarians. Just as pertinently, then, it too would take years to undo the madness of those times.
Performed here by the doughty Classic Stage Ireland, this is Andy Hinds’ most appreciated adaptation to date. Stripped almost completely of dense arcane references (there is still one “A begat B begat C…”-type scene, admittedly!) and made far more accessible for the casual punter to follow, the focus is much more on what the play is about rather than on “what the Zeus?” that guy just said. Equally, the chorus here does a fine cabaret act of song, movement, and lyrical recital, with the trademark use of one member commencing to speak and several others then chiming in for emphasis again featuring prominently.
While Ms. Moore comfortably confounds her girlish hugs and skips to become the formidable woman who unflinchingly surrenders her life for Greece, the play’s most interesting depiction still comes from Mr. Bates. Perhaps Hollywood is to blame here, for Agamemnon has developed this hard-man image of being proud, callous, and ruthlessly ambitious. Here, though, he is made out to be much more of a weak-minded man, who rules less from an innate sense of authority than out of fear of the mob. As such, Mr. Bates captures in his performance the notion of peacock vanity being all-too-readily stripped back to reveal the pathetic and deeply fallible man inside. Moreover, by the time that his daughter has commandeered the centre-stage, he has been rendered virtually irrelevant.
P.S. Written some 400 years prior to the birth of Jesus Christ, Euripides’ descendants really ought to sue the Vatican for breach of copyright here.