Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Opened 28 November, 2007

Director Katie Mitchell's recent productions at the National Theatre have taken oblique or fractured texts – Strindberg's A Dream Play, Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Martin Crimp's Attempts On Her Life – and heightened the obliqueness and fragmentation with every device at her disposal. In contrast, this is a return to what might be considered "classic" Mitchell: stark, ascetic, remorselessly maintaining a single dominant tone... and dimly lit. I know I have mentioned this trait in previous reviews, but on this occasion I was often unable to identify who was uttering a line, or who was left alone onstage in the final seconds of this 80-minute version. Hell is murky, but not every analogue of it need be.

This is, in fact, very much the world of her 2004 production in the same space, Iphigenia At Aulis: a location which is an antechamber off the real action (in this case, an embarkation warehouse where the female Trojan prisoners await shipping off with the victorious Greeks), a group of women in slightly antique formal wear, and periodic choric dances to big-band numbers coming out of a tinny radio speaker. I'm fairly sure that the intention here is towards the grotesque, a sense of the life interrupted by this overthrow, but I'm afraid it goes beyond and into the absurd. Furthermore, the maddened virgin prophetess Cassandra's reaction to the news that she is to be taken as a concubine by Agamemnon is to satirise the union by inciting the chorus to a rendition of "Close To You". After 2400 years, this may still be the most scathing dramatic indictment of war ever written, but it was not co-written by Euripides and Burt Bacharach.

In all fairness, Mitchell has few peers in the matter of portraying sustained, almost superhuman levels of suffering. Here, Trojan queen Hecuba (a strong performance by Mitchell stalwart Kate Duchêne), her daughters and townswomen have scarcely the spirit or energy for outright grief or terror. Their words sometimes serve as mere counterpoints to Gareth Fry's remarkable sound design of infernal rumbles offstage as the last of the city is laid waste. It is an immensely powerful mood, aided by a script which seems likewise almost entirely devoid of affect (although the programme credits this as being "from" rather than "in" Don Taylor's version, suggesting that Mitchell and co. may have altered his text as they did Caryl Churchill's version of A Dream Play).

But she will keep sabotaging it. It seems contradictory to write on the one hand that this bleak register is sustained non-stop, and on the other that it is periodically interrupted, but that is the paradox of such a staging. I do not believe that the disjunctions are intentional: for instance, the slow backwards procession across the stage of (I think) Anastasia Hille's Andromache, somehow mourning her murdered infant son some time after we are told she has already sailed for Greece, is doubtless meant to be sombre rather than bewildering. Most tellingly, I do not believe that the portrayal of Cassandra has been deliberately torpedoed by casting Sinead Matthews, that slight figure whose voice is at once shrill and rasping and manages to suggest that the blessed/accursed seeress is merely threatening to thcweam and thcweam until she's thick. In the director's claustrophobic 1991 Gate Theatre production of the same work, Cassandra was played by Kathryn Hunter; there is simply no comparison. This production uses the extremity of exhaustion to, at times, even greater effect than the passionate defiance in the earlier outing. If only Mitchell, having found and distilled such power, could leave well enough alone.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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