With Ben Whishaw heading up the Bakkhai from July, Kate Fleetwood tackling Medea in the autumn and Robert Icke’s production of the Oresteia now under way, the “Almeida Greeks” season is one of the most highly anticipated theatrical events of the year. “For theatre, to begin at the beginning is to begin with the Greeks,” notes Artistic Director Rupert Goold, and the exciting season is also being supplemented by a series of context-providing talks and Q&As. The first of these, held last Monday before the performance, found Goold, Deborah Warner and Ivo van Hove sharing their thoughts on “Why Greeks Matter”. With Goold serving as interlocutor, the directors talked insightfully, wittily and sometimes even movingly about their experiences of directing Greek tragedy over the years. (The discussion can be viewed at the Almeida website.)
All agreed that these plays pose unique challenges for practitioners, actors and audiences, mostly because, as van Hove noted, they’re built around very specific “conventions that have to be approached in a new way.” Frank about her dissatisfaction with some English approaches to the plays, Warner reminisced about her first foray into the field with her influential production of Electra in 1988. The director recalled the “frightening” experience of not making any progress after three weeks of rehearsal (a soon-to-resign Orestes with a drug problem didn’t help, apparently) before ordering an impromptu run-through that – thanks primarily to Fiona Shaw’s dynamic brilliance – showed her that the play could indeed “release pure emotion” as she intended.
Warner was particularly interesting when discussing the limitations of a text-based approach to Greek tragedy, emphasising that the words can be a mere blueprint or membrane in this case: “With most plays you think you can go to the words on the page and something will happen. But you can speak a Greek play and nothing may happen.”
|Ivo van Hove|
Both directors talked about the importance of specific collaboration with actors - Warner with Shaw, of course, and van Hove with Juliette Binoche on their recent Antigone - with van Hove stressing the importance of researching the characters’ context and back-story: his first direction to Binoche when preparing Antigone was to go away and read Oedipus at Colonus. Van Hove discussed his strategies for involving the Chorus in Antigone while Warner warned directors to be wary of the “Choral Revolt” – which happens when cast members realise that they’re not playing one of the main roles. Hilariously, she recalled how the Chorus for her Medea came to her and announced that they couldn’t be in the play, after all, because they didn’t approve of child murder. (Warner: “I’m not sure that I do, either…”)
Especially memorable (and moving) were the directors’ remarks about the contemporary resonances, or political parallels, of the plays. Warner recalled how a performance of Electra in Co. Derry in 1992 affected the audience to the extent that they didn’t applaud but instead demanded a discussion with the cast afterwards. Suggesting that his approach has become more politicised over the years, van Hove, meanwhile, talked with palpable emotion about the impact of the shooting down of Malasia Airlines Flight MH17 last July on his staging of Antigone. Warner, however, was adamant that such parallels shouldn’t be forced or imposed on the plays but rather emerge organically from specific contexts. Ultimately, the plays are family stories, she said, and, as such, “they go to the core. To something essential. They define the profound experience that theatre can be.”
|Jessica Brown Findlay and Angus Wright in Oresteia (Almeida Theatre)|
The idea of “approaching conventions in a new way” is unsurprisingly central to Icke’s take on the Oresteia: sometimes scintillatingly, sometimes less successfully so. Icke’s production of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns last year was one of the great polarising productions of recent times and his take on Aeschylus, on which he serves as both adaptor and director, could prove just as divisive. Running at a lengthy 3 hours 45 minutes, Icke’s production approaches the trilogy with a good deal of irreverence, replacing the Chorus with a "doctor" figure (Lorna Brown) who’s interviewing Orestes (Luke Thompson), for example. Hildegard Bechtler’s fine design is filled with meandering, ghostly presences as the evening progresses, as Icke, a shrewd and often daring manipulator of pace, tone and mood, languorously stretches out some scenes, allowing particular flourishes to really resonate.
Some of the production’s innovations (mics and screens, the employment of an iconic pop song) aren’t really innovations at all. Rather, they’re borrowed wholesale from the precedents set by the likes of van Hove and Warner. But while there’s perhaps too much recourse to elements that have essentially become the "lingua franca" of contemporary takes on classical tragedy, the actors come through: Angus Wright with a memorably conflicted Agamemnon, Jessica Brown Findlay with an intense Electra, and especially Lia Williams as a stunning Klytemnestra, galvanising when screaming “I’ll wake the house!” as her husband confronts her with his murderous plans for their daughter or raising a shriek of pleasure at her own violent acts. The production, with its share of excitements and irritations, makes for a memorably bold and potent start to this season.