(Arifa Akbar’s aicle appeared in the Guardian, 5/26; via Pam Green; Photo: A terrible, startling drama … Eileen Walsh (Clytemnestra) and David Walmsley (Agamemnon) in Girl on an Altar. Photograph: Peter Searle.)
Kiln theatre, London
Family dynamics and toxic masculinity are explored in Marina Carr’s riveting version of the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra
The story of Clytemnestra is not quite as we know it from the blood-drenched texts of ancient Greek tragedy here. In those, she is a powerful figure, plotting a murderous revenge on her husband, Agamemnon, for sacrificing their daughter.
In Marina Carr’s audacious version, the power lies squarely with Agamemnon, who consents to the ritual killing of their 10-year-old, Iphigenia, for his advancement in the war against Troy. Yet Clytemnestra is certainly not voiceless in this co-production with the Abbey theatre in Dublin.
Carr tells the story of Clytemnestra (Eileen Walsh) and Agamemnon (David Walmsley) through a series of internal monologues with revisions that make us see the shocks of this story afresh. Innovatively directed by Annabelle Comyn, the production brings a deadly coolness to the searing revelations – unlike the frenzy we saw in Ivo van Hove’s recent retelling of the same story in Age of Rage. The characters here feel larger than life as opposed to in van Hove’s version, where the humans seemed so small and insignificant amid the large-scale set.
It is a counterintuitive venture with riveting results for the most part. A few moments feel static but these are brief and there is a terrible, startling drama inside the stillness. Carr’s story is so intimate in its telling, with so many off-stage scenes painted in words, that it verges on novelistic and makes it necessary for us to imagine much of what it is described. The lighting and sound take on a stupendous force, with an interplay of black and white as doors open suddenly and shafts of light reveal new figures on stage (lighting design by Amy Mae; video design by Will Duke). The sound of lapping waves or cawing birds is crisp and beautiful (composition and sound design by Philip Stewart). With Tom Piper’s spare set design, the combined effect is astonishingly atmospheric.
The script itself has an epic quality – Homeric in its vivid detail and oral splendour – but it is at heart a pointed study of a marriage, profoundly unequal in its power. The bed on stage drives home the point that this story is about marriage, love, sex and childbirth.