Robert Icke’s adaptation of the Oresteia at the Almeida theatre is about perception, lying, pretense, waking up, and purpose. You know the story, but this post contains major spoilers about the execution. It is the best night I have had at the theatre for years, and is worth a plane flight from New York if you have the dosh.
Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. His wife murders him, and their son Orestes avenges his father by murdering his mother. The first thing Klytemnestra says to her husband after he murders their child is, “I still love you”.
At the start, it is absolutely clear that Klytemnestra and Agamemnon have two daughters, one of whom he sacrifices in order to get a fair wind to Troy. At the end, it is absolutely clear that he only ever had one daughter, whom he killed. That is the point of it. We do not know anything, because we do not see clearly, or because we delude ourselves. At the start of the play, Agamemnon is busily lying to the world and himself- he tells the television cameras that his cause is just and there will be an easy victory, and he talks about his happy family dinners together, while his elder daughter bitches at him.
Agamemnon’s advisers tell him that he must sacrifice Iphigenia. He will win the people’s loyalty by showing what he is prepared to pay, is one argument. He gives in. Klytemnestra argues, begs, pleads, and physically attacks him in an attempt to stop him. Then he poisons their daughter, all the while assuring her how brave she is being.
The world changes. The stage goes dark, there is a great wind and a harsh cry of brass. I found this electrifying, and beautiful at the time, and now think it is Reality bursting in: the lies have led to Murder, and cannot be sustained any more.
The first thing Klytemnestra says to her husband after is, “I still love you”. She says it so sincerely and mournfully that it might be true. I loved her in that moment, and was rooting for her from then on. She has woken up. Perhaps she is lying consciously now: she needs to lull him, so she may humiliate, dominate, crush, destroy then murder him. Perhaps she tells the truth: she still loves, though she hates. She has her sense of purpose, and carries it out, clear eyed. Now, I see her as a monster: she forms her purpose to kill, and carries it out without remorse; and I still love her.
I loved the dark, viscous pool of blood seeping from Agamemnon as he lay dead. It was beautiful.
Beside this, Orestes’ murder of his mother is weak, cowardly and in a strange way innocent. He knows that he should avenge his father. That is what everyone expects- except that it is still wrong to kill his mother. After he kills her, she appears to still be alive, and they have a loving scene together: he cannot admit to himself what he has done. Then the lights go out and the brass screams again: humankind cannot bear very much reality, but this reality must break through. He is a weakling, hardly conscious of what he wants or what he does behind the self-image he must preserve. The child is the price.
Orestes challenges my verdict. You’re trying to simplify me. To pack me down into one easy diagnosis. A judgment. He’s this one thing. Finished. It is, and is not, legitimate to do that.