Oresteia as transformative work

Tisha Turk

University of Minnesota, Morris, Minnesota, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Robert Icke's transformative adaptation of Aeschylus' Oresteia updates its themes and gives it a profound emotional urgency.

[0.2] Keywords—Adaptation; Aeschylus; Classics; Greek tragedy; Oresteia; Theatre

Turk, Tisha. 2016. "Oresteia as Transformative Work." In "The Classical Canon and/as Transformative Work," edited by Ika Willis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 21.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In June of 2015, I attended a new version of Aeschylus' Oresteia, adapted and directed by Robert Icke, at the Almeida in London. I knew only that Icke's new version gave the play a contemporary setting and that the production was very long and, according to a number of reviewers, very good. I had refrained from reading any of the reviews myself because I didn't want to be spoiled for any details.

[1.2] Although my academic training is in literary studies, neither classics nor drama is my area of expertise, and so I came to Icke's Oresteia, as I do to most productions, less as a scholar than as a fan of theatre and its transformative elements. As Francesca Coppa points out in "Writing Bodies in Space: Media Fanfiction as Theatrical Performance" (2006), transformation is central to theatre, and especially to productions of canonical or well-known works: "Theatre artists think it's fine to tell the same story again, but differently: …In theatre, we want to see your Hamlet and his Hamlet and her Hamlet; to embody the role is to reinvent it" (236). These reinventions can be one of the great joys of theatre. Theatre fans tend to collect—and eagerly discuss—differences in the choices of specific directors, actors, and creative teams about interpretation, setting, and staging.

[1.3] Classical drama lends itself especially well to discussions of theatre as transformative work. Simon Goldhill, the academic consultant on Icke's Oresteia, notes that the Greek tragedies were already transformative in their own time: Greek tragedians "rewrote the inherited myths of ancient Athens for the new democratic city" (2015, 4). In the Oresteia, Aeschylus stages stories that would have been familiar to his audience from Homer's Odyssey, "redrafting the old and privileged stories to talk directly to new and insistent politics" (5). For Goldhill, this history of transformation demands ongoing transformation in contemporary productions: "Each new version of his masterpiece [must speak] to its own modern condition, if it is [to] be true to the spirit of Aeschylus" (6).

[1.4] In our current context, many audience members will be aware of the basic events relevant to Greek and Roman drama, such as the story of the Trojan War and its fallout, but relatively few will be familiar with specific texts, translations, or productions. For an audience that knows, generally speaking, what's going to happen but doesn't know precisely how or when, stagings of classical drama can combine inevitability and uncertainty in exciting ways. A new adaptation, such as Icke's, generates additional tension through the possibility that the events we anticipate will play out differently than we expect—as indeed, in this production, they do. That possibility of difference is signaled from Oresteia's opening moments. Unlike the original trilogy, which begins with Agamemnon's return home from the sack of Troy, Icke's production begins before the war, when Agamemnon hears the prophecy that sets events in motion: "By his hand alone. The child is the price. Fair winds" (Aeschylus 2015, 14).

Video 1. Video trailer for Robert Icke's 2015 production of Oresteia at the Almeida Theatre, London.

[1.5] This Oresteia is an astonishing production, and one short essay can cover only a few of the elements that contribute to its energy and vitality. The performances, especially Lia Williams's superb Klytemnestra, are outstanding; the elegant design and lighting provide the ideal mood and context for those performances. But I focus here on Icke's use of domestic scenes and of particular characters—Iphigenia, Orestes, and Electra—to update the themes of Aeschylus' story and give it a profound emotional urgency. As Susannah Clapp (2015) writes in her Observer review (well worth reading), "This is not destruction but revelation. You can almost see the dust flying off the old master."

2. Family

[2.1] As a number of reviewers noted, the production's domestic setting serves to "beckon us into this family's interior world" (Higgins 2015). This domesticity is not immediately apparent; the set is stark, minimalist, anything but cozy. But it includes two notable features: a long table downstage, the scene of several family dinners; and further upstage, intermittently visible behind the smartglass panels, an enormous bathtub. Dinners and baths: the very stuff of domesticity.

[2.2] The family meals, in particular, are critical to the production's emotional effects. In the first dinner scene, Agamemnon comes home, the table is set, the family sits down together, Iphigenia says grace—and the family interactions that ensue are so utterly relatable, so surprisingly funny, that all the participants immediately feel familiar rather than mythic. "What I want to know," Agamemnon says, "is—who at the table is going to tell this family the story of their day?" "Dad," all three children respond in chorus (Aeschylus 2015, 24–25). Electra's teenaged flippancy and boundary-pushing ("Can I have wine?"), Orestes' enthusiasm for cake, and Iphigenia's persistent questions forcefully remind us that Agamemnon's choices will have not only political but also domestic consequences.

[2.3] For this family, of course, domesticity and murder are inextricably interconnected; the bath foreshadows what's to come, and so does the family dinner. When Iphigenia asks what meat they're eating, Klytemnestra answers, "It's venison," but Orestes and Electra add, "It's deer" (24), prompting considerable upset from Iphigenia: "Like it's a real live deer?" (26). In her response, Klytemnestra unwittingly articulates the logic that underlies Iphigenia's execution:

[2.4] IPHIGENIA: You mean we killed it?…

KLYTEMNESTRA: Look it's perfectly normal, you've eaten it before.

IPHIGENIA: But if we eat animals, animals die.

KLYTEMNESTRA: Yes, honey, but it's—the animal died in order that we all got to live, to eat. If you could ask the animal it'd be glad that its life keeps all of us alive, by feeding us, happy that we can keep going, and we can eat…Not eating it won't bring it back to life. (26)

[2.5] Later, when she realizes what Agamemnon intends to do, Klytemnestra both rejects this logic—"The death of our child is not the greater good" (50)—and acknowledges her complicity in the link between his war-making and their family: "Violence is how you've put food on our table. And that, I have allowed" (54).

3. Iphigenia

[3.1] Iphigenia's presence transforms the play. In Aeschylus' original plays, the murders that are the trilogy's main events take place offstage: they are described, not seen. Icke's production, by contrast, refuses us the security of mythic distance. Iphigenia's death is not an abstract sacrifice; the audience must watch adults kill a young child onstage, a process that takes several agonizing minutes. It's a clinical rather than a bloody procedure, but it nevertheless forces us—and Agamemnon—to confront the full horror of his choice, and his grief and remorse render him unexpectedly sympathetic:

[3.2] AGAMEMNON: I feel like I've done something so wrong that my whole life, my family, nothing will be able to—the worst mistake. The worst mistake. I got it wrong. It was wrong. It was wrong. (57)

[3.3] Iphigenia continues to appear onstage throughout the play: she wanders through, a ghost or memory, her saffron-yellow dress distinctive amidst the black and white and red of the other costumes. Her ongoing presence suggests that not everything we see on stage is really there—an idea that becomes increasingly important as the play continues.

[3.4] She returns in another form as well: as Cassandra, who Icke specifies should be "reminiscent somehow of Iphigenia" (72). In this production, the adult playing Cassandra not only wears a dress of the same distinctive yellow but also has long dark hair similar to that of the child actor playing Iphigenia. In Aeschylus' original text, Agamemnon captures Cassandra and brings her home as his slave and concubine. Icke's adaptation retains a modern version of this motive: Klytemnestra implies that Cassandra is Agamemnon's mistress in addition to being a prisoner of war. But Cassandra's physical similarity to Iphigenia suggests the alternative possibility that Agamemnon saved her in an attempt to atone for his failure to save his daughter. The production neither confirms nor denies either possibility; both interpretations remain available and plausible.

4. Orestes

[4.1] The play is further transformed by framing much of the onstage action as Orestes' memories, including his reconstruction of events that took place in his absence. In an ongoing conversation, a woman who appears to be a doctor or therapist encourages the adult Orestes to speak: "Just try and tell the truth. Tell me where it started…Travel back along the road, all the way back to where it began" (15).

[4.2] But in the play's last act, based on Eumenides, that framing shifts: Orestes is on trial for the murder of his mother, and the therapist becomes a lawyer—or perhaps she was always a lawyer. Indeed, all of the characters from the earlier acts reappear; as Icke's stage direction indicates, the company "are simultaneously the characters they have already played this evening, and representatives in the court case" (104). Klytemnestra reappears as the chief prosecutor, with the doctor assisting, and the servant Cilissa, now a Fury, joins them on the bench. The lawyers for the defense are Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Talthybias. Cassandra returns as Athene, the judge. The intimacies of family and therapy overlay and inform both the arguments of the court and Orestes' responses to those arguments.

[4.3] The trial scenes change the thematic trajectory of the trilogy. Instead of representing the shift from tribal blood feuds to civil forms of justice, they focus on the unreliability of memory, especially in the wake of trauma, and the impossibility of telling a complex truth from a single perspective.

[4.4] AGAMEMNON: Orestes, as best you can, you swear to give the true version / of what you did

ORESTES: There isn't one true version. There isn't. There isn't one story—a line of truth that stretches start to end. That doesn't happen any more, maybe it never happened, but even as I say this now, as I say this now, in each of your minds you create your own versions, different lenses pointing at the same thing at the same time and seeing that thing differently… (108)

[4.5] As in the original, these scenes also address questions of gender: Is Orestes truly guilty of murdering his mother if he did so to avenge his father? But in place of Apollo's argument that mothers are not really parents because their wombs are only the place where the father's seed grows, we get a rather different speech:

[4.6] KLYTEMNESTRA: A sister, a father, a mother—are dead. There has to come an end. But allow me to ask the house: why does the murder of the mother count for less than that of the father? Because the woman is less important. Why is the mother's motive for revenge lesser than the son's? She avenged a daughter; he a father. Because the woman is less important. This woman has paid the price. But this house cannot be a place where the woman is less important. (119)

[4.7] Icke's production does not change the play's ending; Orestes is still acquitted of the charge of murdering Klytemnestra. However, Icke's changes compel us to think about why the ending is the ending, and in particular to consider the patriarchal forces that constrain that ending.

5. Electra

[5.1] In Aeschylus' Oresteia, Electra disappears: she and Orestes plot the deaths of Klytemnestra and Aegisthus, but Orestes alone appears to be responsible for their murders. Icke's production both rewrites and explains that disappearance by suggesting that perhaps she was never there at all.

[5.2] DOCTOR: Your hair was the same? And your footprints and hers were the same? A girl? That doesn't make sense. Listen to me, Orestes…I think we have to consider the possibility that those were your footprints, that that was your hair…You've survived a trauma. Your sister died, Orestes: your sister, Iphigenia. She died. You survived. We have no record of another sister. You had one sister. (100)

[5.3] The idea that Electra is a figment of Orestes' imagination is startling, yet it's an idea for which Icke prepares us throughout the adaptation. Electra appears unambiguously present in the first dinner scene, but something is off: in this and other scenes, Klytemnestra or Cilissa address Electra as Orestes (25, 31, 90). In retrospect it seems clear that the first family dinner scene was not an unmediated glimpse of the past but Orestes' own unreliable memory of events. In later scenes, Electra's presence is even more ambiguous: when Orestes mentions Electra, other characters don't react or don't recognize the name.

[5.4] Making Electra imaginary renders eerie rather than amusing the famous scene, later parodied by Euripedes, in which Electra recognizes the presence of Orestes by a lock of hair and a footprint. In Icke's adaptation, the scene shows that something is wrong with Orestes' perception of reality. Transforming this element of the story also allows Icke to comment on the story as a whole. Why is Orestes the only one on trial? Why does the trilogy bear his name? Why is the woman less important?

6. Conclusion

[6.1] As Goldhill observes, "the danger for any work when it becomes a classic is that it remains under aspic, an out-of-date dish admired out of duty. Aeschylus' Oresteia is undoubtedly one of the greatest works of western culture, but it needs continual and active re-engagement with its immense potential to make it speak with its true insistence and power. All translators are traitors, but some traitors turn out to be liberators who let us recalibrate what matters, and see the world from a startlingly new perspective" (7). Icke's adaptation and production provide precisely that active re-engagement.

[6.2] As I filed into the lobby of the Almeida Theatre for the first interval—ten minutes exactly, marked by LED displays (onstage and in the lobby) counting down the time remaining—I overheard a fellow theatre-goer complaining to his companion, "Well, but a contemporary setting doesn't make any sense for the story. Human sacrifice! It's absurd, isn't it. People don't do that anymore."

[6.3] Even at the best productions, I suppose, someone is going to miss the point.

7. Works cited

Aeschylus. 2015. Oresteia. Adapted by Robert Icke. London: Oberon.

Clapp, Susannah. 2015. "A Terrifying Immediacy." Review of Oresteia, adapted and directed by Robert Icke, Almeida Theatre, London. The Observer, June 7.

Coppa, Francesca. 2006. "Writing Bodies in Space: Media Fanfiction as Theatrical Performance." In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 218–37. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Goldhill, Simon. 2015. Introduction to Oresteia, by Aeschylus, adapted by Robert Icke, 4–7. London: Oberon.

Higgins, Charlotte. 2015. "Kill and Counter-Kill: Why Does the Oresteia Still Slay Them?" The Guardian, May 22.