By Sam Hodgkins-Sumner
Father sacrifices daughter to the Gods for favourable winds. Mother is none too pleased and takes a new lover in father’s absence. Father takes a demigod priestess as his war-prize. Mother and lover kill father and war-prize on their return to Argos. How’s that for family drama?
This year’s UCC/BSS classical show was Agamemnon, the first instalment of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, performed from January 29th to February 1st. The play tells the tale of the king Agamemnon’s death at the hands of his wife Klytaimnestra and her lover Aigisthos, after the sacking of Troy. The translation chosen by directors Dale Churchward and Heather Crawford was Anne Carson’s modern edition.
From the moment I entered the David Chu Theatre on the show’s opening night, I recognized the signature Churchwardian aesthetic melded with facets of traditional Greek theatre. For starters, the costumes were modern in style (as were the weapons); tuxedos, sleek black dresses, and camouflage for the soldiers. All of the actors remained on stage for the whole play, which is another Churchward favorite. This created a sense of the audience joining the community of Argos- from soldier, to royalty, to old man- in observing and reacting to the onstage action. The fact that the stage was even with the lower level seating enforced this effect. In addition, the Greek production elements melded nicely with the modern ones. The massive tower/palace that rose about twelve feet above the stage was evocative of a skena, and added to the dark and aggressive feel of the show. The chorus, composed of Alex Green, John Gilchrist, Mallory Long, and Jake Bradshaw, marked another Greek form. They, along with Trish Rooney as the watchman/messenger, carried the first half of the show. Their command of the text allowed them to navigate the tough task of the backstory-heavy opening that you would expect from the beginning of a trilogy. I also enjoyed the fact that although they were very much in unison in their goal of keeping their rulers accountable, like any group of citizens, each chorus member had their own personality and allegiances.
The play began to gain momentum when Agamemnon, played by Alex Czegledy, returned home from his decade-long campaign. Czegledy chose to portray the king as cool and haughty, and not the clamorous bully I’d always pictured Agamemnon to be. But it worked, because there to meet him with an icy, brooding demeanour were queen Klytaimnestra, played by Charlotte Miller, and Aigisthos, played by Seth Zucker, who skulked slyly upstage for much of the play before claiming the throne at the end. The calculated gleam in Miller’s eye, along with the aforementioned costumes and set, created a palpable sense of tension for the audience. We had a sense that Klytaimnestra was a wounded and vengeful mother, biding her time for the right moment to strike as she angrily locked horns with the chorus and coldly welcomed her husband home. This tension finally boiled over when Agememnon was killed offstage (in accordance with Greek decorum). After his death, the audience began to empathize with Klytaimnestra as she justified the act by powerfully displaying the anger and grief that she had bottled up since her daughter’s murder.
This review would be incomplete if it didn’t mention or commend Sian Lathrop, who played Kassandra, the Trojan priestess who Agamemnon claims as plunder. Lathrop tackled the most challenging role in the show (in terms of range) admirably. She portrayed the enigmatic and unpredictable nature of a prophetess through her fluctuation from being vulnerable and traumatized to being triumphant and bold in the face of impending doom. It would also be incomplete if commendations were not given to Chris Tully and his tech team for the lighting. I thought that the use of red light (on the staircase to foreshadow the murder, on Klytaimnestra in the sandpit to foreshadow her bloody future) in particular highlighted the play’s theme of dike (justice via eye for an eye) effectively.
In conclusion, after my first viewing, I hadn’t fully digested this show. I was accustomed to a more unbridled approach to Greek theatre, full of wailing and beating of the chest. I left the theatre wondering whether the piece couldn’t use an injection of fury throughout. However, after my second viewing, I realized that this understated approach really suited the play. The fact that the ensemble picked its points of high emotion, and that the drama of the show gradually gathered force like a storm brewing yielded a gripping and intense exodos. Furthermore, the dark aesthetic, Miller’s glowering masked venom, and Lathrop’s poignant fate, added to the tension present right up until the end of the show. Since there are two plays’ worth of drama left to unfold, the audience is left with an enduring sense of uncertainty at the end of Agamemnon. Despite the maelstrom of emotion and action by play’s end, the people of Argos are left in opposition to their new rulers, and the possibility of Orestes’ return hangs in the air like a foreboding spectre.