Michael Bates as Agamemnon in the Classic Stage Ireland production. Photo: Marius Tatu

Michael Bates as Agamemnon in the Classic Stage Ireland production. Photo: Marius Tatu

Classic Stage Ireland’s production of Agamemnon continues its series of Greek dramas staged in Dublin since 2010. It is the first offering of director Andy Hinds’ intended production of Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Oresteia. Hinds, who makes no claim to being a Greek scholar, takes the ambitious decision to use his own version of the text, in consultation with classicist Martine Cuypers. The result is an iambic pentameter rendering which adheres sufficiently to tradition not to distract from the powerful tragedy of the fall of the House of Atreus. While CSI's claims to be providing Dublin with the complete Oresteia for the first time may be overstated (see the RAW production Off Plan which played in Project Arts Centre in 2010), the full cycle is not often staged.

Photo: Marius TatuWorking with a large, young cast, Hinds opts for a chorus vocalising in declamatory mode with a contrapuntal arrangement of voices. The chorus is, at times, swelled by the voices of the actors performing other roles. It’s an innovative and successful choice, although modulating the register now and again would have given audiences some respite from the force of the declamation. The youthful actors energize the delivery, but other challenges are not always successfully met. Despite costuming and makeup actors were not always convincing in their elder roles. On the other hand, Hinds’ invention of young nurses, or carers, to assist the old guard on stage was inspired. In aftershow discussion, he explained this choice as an acceptable means of incorporating female voices into the traditionally all-male choral group.

CSI’s Agamemnon begins, as the audience is being seated, with The Watchman (Joe Purcell) on stage idly playing a harmonica. Bored senseless after ten years in a lonely frontier outpost awaiting the return of the men of Argos, he further conveys the tedium by lying on the ground peering aimlessly at the sky through his trusty binoculars, and bemoaning his fate in exasperated tones. His WWI-esque costume suggests the deprivation and longueurs of the trenches, and is matched by the palette of earth tones used for costuming the chorus. (The young carers wear grey school uniforms, an excellent touch.)

The return of Agamemnon to Argos is the story, like that of Odysseus, of a hero returning after years to his homeland and his wife. But Agamemnon’s welcome is very different from what we remember of The Odyssey. Not for him the faithful Penelope warding off suitors, but rather the sly and vengeful Clytemnestra. Oh, she hasn’t forgiven her sister Helen – of Troy – for triggering tragedy throughout the Greek world; but the immediate focus of her continuing ire is her husband’s sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, coupled now with his effrontery in bringing home the beautiful, doomed prophetess Cassandra, his spoil of war.

In retaliation, particularly for the death of her child, Clytemnestra has taken as lover Aegisthus, her husband’s nephew and a pretender to the throne. The extravagant ritual she plans for Agamemnon’s return offends custom and flies in the face of the gods. Persuaded by his wife, however, the king enacts his fate and will soon be dead by her hand.

Michael Bates as Agamemnon conveys a blithe righteousness and charm at first. His uprightness in religion and law rings true in his delivery, but he never quite rises to full regal proportion. Lesa Thurman’s Clytemnestra is sheer conviction and power, sapping strength from Nick Devlin’s Aegisthus in a gender reversal inherent in the original text. There is something finally too matronly in this portrayal, though; the enraged queen, not helped by an incongruously bourgeois costume and hairstyle and a strident delivery, becomes more evil-minded landlady than ill-begotten daughter of Zeus.

The seer Cassandra is always an enigmatic role to undertake, and Sarah Allen Clarke’s prophetess is humanised to just the right degree to keep her a nuanced distance from the other characters but still viable within the play’s ambient frame.

As this production nears its close, Orestes, the heir of Argos, makes his fateful way home and will promise to avenge the murder of his father. As Agamemnon and Cassandra lie side by side, shrouded in death, the Libation Bearers make an appearance at their obsequies. The latter are the title characters in the next play in the trilogy, and Classic Stage Ireland intends that we will see them again soon. A worthy project which has an appeal that is not confined to those with an interest in classical theatre.

Christina Hunt Mahony, whose books include Out of History: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry (Carysfort), teaches in the School of English, Trinity College.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Agamemnon by Aeschylus

20-31 March, 2012

Produced by Classic Stage Ireland
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Andy Hinds

Set Design: Vincent Bell

Costume Design: David Houghton, Sarah McCann

Lighting Design: John Crudden

With: Michael Bates, Lesa Thurman, Sarah Allen Clarke, Nick Devlin, Duncan Lacroix, Aidan O’Mahony, Joe Purcell, Ronan Dempsey, Shane Falvey, Edel Chan Murphy, and Andrea Cleary.