AGAMEMNON'S CHILDREN:
Elektra/Orestes/Iphigenia
Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 8 March, 1995

Euripides, the Athenian playwright who dared to question the whims of wanton gods, has always been the most intriguing of the Greek tragedians. Now, with translations aimed at the stage rather than the page, his restless intellect strikes the chord it always should have.  This revivification is due in part to the translations of Kenneth McLeish, whose skill at rendering "spoken" (rather than "written") dialogue is masterly. Where a character's words dart hither and yon, McLeish makes no attempt to render them into a smooth poetic flow, but writes speeches of half-formed ideas, hanging phrases and generally jagged edges the way people do talk.

He follows the individual spirits of these three separately written plays rather than trying to harmonise them. In Elektra, Agamemnon's daughter, gaunt and wild-eyed in Sara Mair-Thomas's performance, is obsessively devoted to her grief and her desire for revenge; the language is appropriately spare and angular, with little poetry to blot out the privations. By the closing Iphigenia with its (relatively) happy ending in the reunion and escape of long-sundered brother and sister, a strain of laconicism allows lines to be played for laughs without torpedoing the drama. (Iphigenia asks Orestes for news of Argos; he replies, deadpan, "Have you got all night?")

Designer Anthony McIlwaine has wrought one of the Gate's trademark transformations, constructing a mini-amphitheatre of rude timber; Mike Sands's vocal arrangements for the Chorus nod towards the haunting mysticism of les voix Bulgares. Laurence Boswell's direction, in a fitting final production as the Gate's artistic director, meshes intimately with McLeish's translations to create theatre whose elements of ritual don't tip over into sterile reverence, and which first and foremost is peopled by palpably real figures.

Chief among these are the children of the overall title: Mair-Thomas's Elektra, Barbara Flynn's sardonic yet impassioned Iphigenia and Charles Daish as Orestes. Daish's characterisation, in particular, makes an impressive journey from callow idealism brought up hard against an abomination in Elektra, through despair, frenzy and paralysed apprehension in the play that bears his name, to a tired but flinty Branagh-esque maturity in Iphigenia.

Seen individually, each of these plays is an admirable and (with a few caveats about the self-sufficiency of the play Orestes) impressive drama. Together, this non-trilogy constitutes a remarkable achievement both in itself and in reclaiming Euripides as a playwright whose works are still gloriously alive.

Written for the London Evening Standard.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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