Ancient Greek Tragedy As Urgent As Breaking Bad
It takes some considerable skill to turn a play that was written more than 2,000 years ago into one of the year's freshest, most immediate and uncomfortably topical productions. But that is precisely the achievement of Robert Icke's intense reworking of Oresteia. An Ancient Greek tragedy it might be, but Icke's adaptation of Aeschylus's story says as much about modern Britain as any other play currently running in the capital.
The production is already well on its way to classic status. It began life at the Almeida in June, but wild acclaim has now sent it storming into the West End, and it has lost none of its potency en route. Extreme, powerful and compelling all feel like gross understatements. We're talking about theatre at its most vital — a barrage of primal themes and moral dilemmas almost too big to process, all packaged coherently into a production that is not just gripping but downright mesmerising. Indeed, the greatest indication of its power is that through a bum-numbing three-and-a-half hour running time it keeps the audience utterly enrapt, glued to the stage like it's the final season of Breaking Bad, a sea of wide eyes, jaws on the floor and tear-stained cheeks.
The story itself is a fairly typical revenge cycle, as brutal and bloody as you might expect — those Greeks didn't do tragedy by halves. But it here becomes a biting contemporary tale; a bleak and harrowing portrait of our own troubled times. The political family at its centre must deal with a distant war, "against an enemy that must be fought"; they live in the media glare and duly perform for the cameras; and amid it all we are faced with questions about religion, feminism, criminal justice, mental illness, refugees and much more besides. To say any more about the plot would just be to rob you of the pleasure (read: shock) of watching the whole nasty saga unfold.
Credit also goes to Hildegard Bechtler's excellent design, and a strong cast, including Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay, making her stage debut. Stealing the show, however, are two towering performances from Angus Wright and Lia Williams, the latter of whom must be a shoe-in for an Olivier Award nomination. The whole show, in fact, deserves plenty of awards attention, not least for Icke, who has even trumped his excellent recent production of 1984.
In short, this is unforgettable theatre, as alarmingly good as it is intense and distressing. If you see only one play this autumn, make it this one.
Oresteia runs at Trafalgar Studios until 7 November. Tickets £10 to £49.50. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket. And there's also another corking version of the play on at the Globe now for you to compare and contrast the two.
By Dan Frost
Last Updated 11 September 2015