Iphigenia In Aulis
Reviewed – 13th November 2019
“a timely revival of Euripides’ classic play, and modern audiences will find much to think about in this drama”
Iphigenia in Aulis is not really about the doomed eldest daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra—it is about the jockeying for fame and power of the men who surround her. It is Euripides’ complex, ironic look at how families break down when men are willing to sacrifice the people they love most to win the spoils of war. This production in a translation by Philip Vellacott, and presented by Performance Anxiety and the Voila! Festival at the Cockpit Theatre, is a brave effort for such a challenging and morally problematic drama.
The plot hinges on the dilemmas facing Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek Army, as he faces off against rivals, including his brother Menelaus, to maintain his grip on power. Marooned in Aulis, and needing favourable winds to proceed to Troy, the priest Calchas tells Agamemnon that he has offended the goddess Artemis, and that he must sacrifice his eldest daughter (and favourite child) Iphigenia, to win her forgiveness. Agamemnon, having sent a message to his wife and child to summon them to Aulis on the pretext of a marriage to Achilles—is now having second thoughts. He hastily sends a second message to Clytemnestra, telling her to ignore his first message, and naturally, as in all good tragedies, the message never reaches the intended recipient. Now he has to face his daughter, his wife, and Achilles, who decides that his honour has been attacked, and that he must protect his “bride”. The weak and vacillating Agamemnon eventually decides that he can’t afford to back down. The results are predictable.
This production, co-directed by Lee Anderson and Dean Elliott, is a stripped down, modern dress version of this classic. The direction is competent, though misses opportunities to create intimacy and so raise the stakes between the characters in the large space on stage at the Cockpit. Agamemnon, (a rather muted performance by Dean Elliott) blows this way and that as the pressure to make a decision increases. But the scenes between him and his brother Menelaus, (an empathetic portrayal by Christopher Adams that adds depth to a character mainly known for losing his wife to Paris) are nicely judged with moments of humour. Hannah Wilder, who plays Iphigenia, wisely chooses to focus on the more relatable parts of her character—seeing the breakdown of her parents’ marriage with shock and horror, and trying to play the good daughter while protecting her baby brother Orestes from the family fallout. It is left to Clytemnestra (a commanding performance in a difficult role by Emma Wilkinson Wright) to try and guilt Agamemnon into changing his mind and sparing their daughter. Clever enough to realize that guilt alone is unlikely to change Agamemnon’s mind, she has prepared her ground carefully by telling Iphigenia of her father’s real plans for her, and ensuring that Achilles will add his arguments to hers. Joey Ellis, who plays Achilles, comes closest to creating a fully rounded character in this demanding play. He manages the transition well between self absorbed warrior thinking only of his honour, and a man sensitive enough to realize the value of his bride. His performance adds just the right amount of ironic regret as the adults around him and Iphigenia battle for position. Ultimately though, as in most Greek tragedies, it is the women who have to deal with the fallout from their men’s military ambitions. Euripides does not spare his audience the depth of Clytemnestra’s grief on the loss of her daughter, no matter what spin the Chorus puts on Iphigenia’s disappearance at the altar of Artemis.
Despite some weaknesses in direction and dramaturgy, this production is a timely revival of Euripides’ classic play, and modern audiences will find much to think about in this drama of leaders who are willing to do the unthinkable—and who conveniently forget the human costs for those who are powerless against them.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Iphigenia In Aulis
Cockpit Theatre until 14th November as part of Voila! Europe 2019
Previously reviewed at this venue: