IPHIGENIA AT AULIS
Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Opened 22 June, 2004

It opens with director Katie Mitchell taking the mickey out of her taste for dim stage lighting. A character enters, gropes across the stage, trips over some furniture and swears. Great start.  This sets the tone for most of the next two hours of Greek tragedy: an amount of characteristic Mitchell earnestness undercut bewilderingly by whimsy.  In the final half-hour, though, things come together with a shattering power.

The story is one of the darkest in Greek drama. The Greek fleet, ready to set sail for Troy, lies becalmed. Only if King Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter Iphigenia will the gods grant fair winds to take them off to war.  Which is more important: the cause of war, even one for such tenuous reasons as this, or the value of human life?  The sort of dilemma that would make Brad Pitt run a mile, armour and all.

Even though Euripides wrote his play 2400 years ago, as soon as you start talking about wars, big causes, the value of people, principles etc, youíre slam-bang up-to-the-minute relevant.  The design likewise brings things close to the present, dressing the actors in semi-formal 1950s clothing and locating them in a shabby public hall in Aulis.  And, as it goes on, a lot of people trip (deliberately) over those chairs.

As I say, there are numerous moments which weirdly undercut the tragedy. Not just things such as Achilles being puffed-up and self-regarding, or the dramatic irony hidden in various lines.  The chorus of women, for instance, end each of their formal segments with a strange, stumbling, backwards dance, almost like something out of Beckett.  Itís probably meant to suggest ritual and formality, but itís just plain odd.

Then, in its final phase, Mitchellís production suddenly winds up and lets loose an almighty punch to the gut.  Hattie Morahanís Iphigenia stops being a cipher and becomes a young woman of immense passion as she volunteers to go through with the sacrifice nonetheless.  The winds granted by the gods then tear across the stage like a hurricane. Itís a shocking, potent end to the earlier puzzling business and uncertain tone.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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