Oresteia – Review

Lia Williams in Oresteia. Images Manuel Harlan
Lia Williams in Oresteia. Images Manuel Harlan

You’ve got to hand it to the Greeks. They may not be able to balance the national debt but their capacity for coming up with edge-of-your seat drama is second to none – even if it is more than 2,500 years old.

It’s scandalous that Ancient Greece is so woefully ignored in state education. I went in to Almeida Theatre’s epic Oresteia having little idea what to expect yet I emerged with my brain buzzing with the impact of the story-telling.

After 3hrs 40 minutes of engrossing, powerfully told melodrama, I had a bit of an epiphany (an Ancient Greek word for realisation – very apt).

This is where it all began. Every murder mystery, every courtroom drama, every story about dysfunctional families, every tale of slaughter, adultery and revenge, it all began here.

Hell, I’m pretty sure that this is even the birthplace of Norman Bates and Psycho.

Eve Benioff Salama, Lia Williams, Ilan Galkoff & Angus Wright in Oresteia. Almeida Theatre. By Manuel Harlan

Robert Icke’s adaptation of Aeschylus’ award-winning Greek tragedy (yes, he walked off with an early Olivier for Best New Play) throws up a lot of questions but equally keeps its audience enthralled – which is no mean feat after 220-minutes.

Oresteia is the second in the Almeida Greeks season and artistic director Rupert Goold likens it to a heady mixture of The Godfather and Breaking Bad.

Actually it’s more The Borgias with a touch of the hit TV courtroom series, Murder One, thrown in. This is a story seeped in blood, fury, vengeance and supernatural intervention.

Here is the ultimate moral dilemma. Would you kill your child if it was for the greater good? Could you, for instance, bring yourself to murder your daughter if it leads to the end of a war or saves millions from harm? Isn’t that the argument of every suicide bomber and religious fanatacist?

In this instance the great warrior king, Agamemnon, is persuaded (by “signs”. The Greeks were big on signs from the Gods) that he will win the war against Troy if he kills his young daughter. But the action has terrible repercussions with his family torn apart and his wife left bereft.

Icke tells the three-part story occasionally through narrative given to a doctor in what appears to be therapy, and in a court, by Agamemnon’s adult son, Orestes (Luke Thompson who nicely keeps a lid on a full-on mental turn – which is no mean feat when you consider what his character has seen and done), who is on trial for his life.

The set is nothing but a plain table and benches, with vast sliding doors behind, while the cast are dressed simply in modern clothes of black and grey. Very utilitarian chic. Very Islington.

There are TV cameras recording every aspect of the family’s life. Everything they do is under public scrutiny.

Orestes is your classic basket case. He’s unsure himself whether he’s mad. Perhaps he’s just a bit deranged. Perhaps the whole thing is a dream.

He’s committed matricide which he justifies as retaliation for his mother’s violence against his father.

In Greek mythology Orestes is hailed as a hero and a role model. He is a boy who took back control of his family.

Yet, as a mother, I can understand perfectly why Klytemnestra strikes out at her husband. She has been robbed of a child and, as far as she sees it, needlessly. Who really knows whether Iphigenia’s death won them the war. Was it a co-incidence?

There are some truly shocking scenes played out on stage. We see petite Lia Williams rage against her husband (an intense and lofty Angus Wright, and a rather one-sided fight considering the height difference) when he first tells her what he must do. She reacts as any mother would at hearing such awful news.

But then we’re appalled when she forgives him. She understands the sacrifice. Her Klytemnestra is icy, controlled, but, ultimately, manipulative and, I was relieved to see, plotting retribution.

Angus Wright in Oresteia. Almeida Theatre. By Manuel Harlan

She gets her chance when her husband returns from the wars a decade later with a concubine in tow (talk about rubbing her nose in it).

Wright’s Agamemnon appears as a politician and patriarch. He is a loving family man who comes home after a hard day at work and insists on everyone at dinner where he can hear about how his wife and children spent their day.

He’s also a man of devout faith – which is ultimately his undoing. Agamemnon is initially horrified when his brother tells him he must make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the country – but, eventually, he overcomes the moral dilemma to hold the little girl in his arms as she takes a lethal cocktail of drugs.

This is a tragedy in its true sense. The outcome of everyone’s actions is inevitable, from the very first moment of the opening act.

I had a bit of a problem with Orestes and his relationship with older sister Electra (Downton’s Jessica Brown Findlay making a great stage debut). We know Electra existed because she is mentioned in the work of other Greek writers.

Yet there’s a line in Orestes courtroom scene when a doctor says: “Your sister died. We have no record of another sister. You had one sister.”

I began to think I was a mad as he. Is Icke suggesting that Orestes was a split personality psycho who invented an alter-ego of Electra after being traumatised as a child by the death of his young sister?

The final scenes throw up all sorts of post-show debates. I saw the outcome as a gross miscarriage of justice but you may think otherwise.

Wright and Williams, as Agamemnon and Klytemnestra, are shown as the heads of a very ordinary family thrust into an extraordinary time. The decisions they have to make are every parent’s worst nightmare. Is there any right or wrong?

Oresteia runs at Islington’s Almeida Theatre until July 18.

Review Rating
  • Oresteia


The Almeida Greeks season continues with the ultimate Greek tragedy, Oresteia, a compelling and thought-provoking story of murder and madness in a dysfunctional family, that throws up the mother of moral dilemmas.

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