Edna O'Brien finds much in Euripides and Iphigenia to chime with her own artistic tastes and concerns. Her programme notes portray the ancient Greek tragedian as a rebel and an outcast, for daring to dramatise the awkward and unpleasant aspects of stories that challenged the complacency of official mythologies and thus of the contemporary Athenian polity.
O'Brien's text, too, sums up its own preoccupations in a couple of separate lines from the opening minutes of Anna Mackmin's Sheffield Crucible production: "In time of war, unspeakable, unthinkable things are done" and "Oh, the passions, the passions." In her rendering of the story of Agamemnon's sacrifice of his beloved daughter to appease the goddess Artemis and so earn fair winds for the Greek armada to Troy, O'Brien gives us feelings ratcheted up to the heights and also the dishonour of a system that sees human life as an acceptable price for civic exigencies (as most recently also in her novel In The Forest).
Lisa Dillon's Iphigenia is almost saintly in her cheerful, girlish innocence, until the news breaks that she has not been called to the port of Aulis for marriage to Achilles but for her death; her ultimate fatalistic resolution is both noble in itself and irredeemably grim in the context of the play as a whole. Lloyd Owen's Agamemnon is a conscientious man who finds the strength to meet his monarchical obligations but not the greater strength to assert his humanity, although we see him and Menelaus (John Marquez) turning and overturning their own and each other's hearts as to whether the reclamation of the faithless Helen is worth Iphigenia's life.
As Agamemnon's queen, Clytemnestra, Susan Brown shows us the gradual hardening of the heart that will lead to the events recounted in better known Greek dramas. O'Brien concentrates on those fragments of the Greek text most confidently ascribed to Euripides, and so jettisons the cop-out ending whereby divine intervention substitutes a sacrificial deer for the princess at the last moment. In this version, the final moments are Clytemnestra's. Iphigenia is bound in her wedding veil and carried on a ladder/hurdle out through the auditorium, accompanied by almost the entire company, to a blaring, sombre dirge; Clytemnestra is left alone on a darkened stage, keening.
We then hear the thunder which signifies the deed itself; the rest of the company rush back across the stage, giving praise for the winds we can now hear whistling. Rain begins to fall; the lights come up just enough for us to see that this is a rain of blood drenching Clytemnestra. The Witch who serves as chorus leader foretells that, on Agamemnon's return from Troy, Clytemnestra will murder him; the queen embraces the prophecy with black thankfulness. After 75 minutes, this play is over, but we know how the story continues.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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