Drunk Theatre: The Oresteia, Trafalgar Studios (Almeida)

Oresteia at the Almeida - poster

I was quite drunk the first time I ever encountered the Oresteia, Aeschylus’ family bathtub-drowning-revenge-stabbing-dynastic-betrayal-murderfest trilogy. For about ten years, every January a group of us would rent a big house in Derbyshire for a weekend and read through some plays. When we did the Oresteia, I was one of the chorus: it was the first play of the weekend, on a Friday night, and I may have wilfully misinterpreted what kind of libation, exactly, the Libation Bearers were bearing, like whether or not it was a raspberry daiquiri, and whether it was being borne to, say, Agamemnon’s grave or, for example, my mouth.

(During The Eumenides, the final play, when the chorus is the Furies, I mostly remember Athene, played by Kat, rapping her gavel very firmly and the lead Fury, played by the weekend’s organiser Catriona, repeating ‘Fury Two—‘ with the sharp weary tone of ‘wing commander, we’re trying to attack the Death Star here and you seem to be vomiting in your helmet’.)

Furies, quite pissed
The Furies, quite pissed. Photo (c) Nick Metcalfe


I’d also heard super good things about Robert Icke’s translation/adaptation of the trilogy, which started at the Almeida and transferred to the Trafalgar Studios, and then my friend and long-time Drunk Theatregoer Louisa sorted out tickets as a birthday present, because she’s wonderful.

Seen: August 28, 2015 (first act) at Trafalgar Studios, London.

The drinks: double gin and tonic pressed into my hand seconds after my arrival, by Louisa (see above).

The play: LOVED IT, although I only made it through the first hour. Icke added a fourth act/short play to the beginning of the trilogy, staging the ‘Iphigeneia at Aulis’ story, when Agamemnon (Angus Wright) kills his daughter to get good winds to sail to Troy. In this version, the sacrifice wasn’t to start the war, but to end it; this meant a lot of wonderfully wordy utilitarian arguments interspersed with family yelling, before Agamemnon sits his daughter down and murders her in front of us. It was excellent how comfortable the production was with letting us be uncomfortable: there was a big digital clock above the stage, counting down the very precise interval timings and flashing on characters’ times of death. Iphigeneia – here maybe 8? years old? played on different nights by three incredibly cute child actors – is fed a poison pill, and we sat watching the minutes tick by as she kicked her feet on her dad’s lap and slowly, agonisingly went still.

Then a door opened on the side of the stage: it blew in light, feathers, and papers, the ‘good winds’ Agamemnon needed and, as it blew on Klytemnestra (Lia Williams), she took the winds into herself and reshaped them, sending them on with the impression of her, and they became the imprint of the Furies entering through the hole in the world ripped open by the family-killing trauma.

“Gosh this is good theatre!” I thought, feeling more than hearing a whoomph of air rushing and the world expanding inside my head. A few seconds later my face hit the floor. Whoops. I’d come off a week of double night shifts and wasn’t feeling great, but it says something that even after actually losing consciousness for several seconds, I spent the next ten minutes looking around the theatre for somewhere to lie down (in case I fainted again) but still see the stage (so I didn’t miss anything!!). When I explained this plan at the first interval, an alarmed Louisa rightly sent me home.

Seen: October 17, 2015 (whole play) at Trafalgar Studios, London.

The drinks: Lion’s Milk cocktail at the Palomar (along with proper dinner and several nights’ actual sleep); large glass of red wine at first interval; medium glass of red wine at second interval.

The play: Impressions of theatre are always going to be a result of what’s going on with you at the time of seeing it. It just happens that my body did unusual things twice at this show, which has made me feel it’s a very immediate and visceral production, whether or not that’s actually true, although I think it is true.

The second one happened after Klytemnestra has stabbed Agamemnon. She told us she felt it as an act of liberation, that his blood was ‘liquid rightness’, watering her like the rain Zeus sends to water corn, making her feel, for the first time in her life, really free. At the interval I went to the ladies’ and discovered I’d started a really heavy period, one of the heaviest I’ve had in two or three years. The kind of birth control I’m on means my menstruation is irregular and usually quite light, and it was quite shocking to lift my dress up and find pools of dark thick blood soaking through my blue and white underpants.

It was like, and I know this is very silly, something resonated in the universe and my body went, oh, it’s blood you’re after, hey, I’ve got some of that! That’s what this production was like, and again I know this sounds silly, but in that theatre watching that show, it felt plausible that the winds brought by Iphigeneia’s death were powerful enough to knock me out, and that Klytemnestra’s exultation in life-watering blood reached and brought out from me a torrent of the kind of blood that nourishes a child. It was weird and supernatural, but this is a world where murdering a girl brings wind, and Furies give evidence in courts of law. When Klytemnestra argues to Agamemnon, “She was part of my body—!”, it’s hard to not feel a strong and immediate connection with that when your uterine lining is seeping out into a hastily wodged together wad of loo roll. (No theatre seats were harmed in the making of this review.) Like – children live inside you and eat your blood! what the fuck is that? no wonder everyone wants to kill everyone they’re related to, families are fucking weird! (‘Families are fucking weird’: the rejected subtitle of the trilogy in the Athenian competition, 3rd year BC)

There was plenty fun intellectual stuff – lines are cheeky and combative references to their predecessor, playfully alluding to or holding up and querying the original (at least, as I know it in translation). The relation of ‘fury’ to ‘kindly’. One moment just made me smile and go “oh, theatre!”: all at the same time, Iphigenia’s memory/ghost stands in the bathtub singing Brian Wilson’s ‘God Only Knows’, Cassandra lunges across the dinner table and breaks into the original Aeschylus, and the Greek characters start bickering with each other over the wine. It also made me laugh when the audience reacted with far more audible horror to Agamemnon knocking over the red wine bottle than him deciding to kill his child. But mainly this sticks in my mind as not just a very smart production – although it was – but one that really reached out into me and left me with a bruised face and bloody clothes.

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