Two classic Greek tragedies are combined in this new adaptation which centers on the tearing apart of King Agamemnon’s family by the Trojan war. Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis and Sophocles’ Ajax come together in this retelling in two parts, in which Agamemnon is the one to be driven to madness, rather than Ajax.
I’ll be honest with you, I was initially worried when I read about this radical change to the story of Ajax. I failed to see how it might make sense for Agamemnon to be the protagonist of this second tragedy. But Jamie Murphy, the director and creator of this adaptation, is clearly much more creative than I am, and in his hands the two tragedies fit together naturally. In fact, I found the second part, of which the text and storyline were strongly adapted to fit with the first, the more interesting part to watch by far. This says a lot about Murphy’s capabilities as a writer, but also made me wish he had done more to play around with the first part in a similar way.
The story starts at Aulis, where the Greek army is waiting to set sail, but can’t get a move on as there is a complete lack of wind. A priest tells King Agamemnon that he has offended Artemis and must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease her and in return she will give him the weather he desires. This part of the play is staged quite traditionally, the simple yet elegant set evoking a Greek amphitheater with tall grey columns creating multiple passages from which characters appear. Will Hayman has done an excellent job on the lighting design, casting long shadows across the set that gives it a unique sense of volume. There is a chorus present at all times during the tragedy, alternately narrating and commenting on the story. The somewhat monotonous drone of their collective voices did not do much to encourage engagement in the story and would have been enhanced by more interesting dynamics and playfulness with the text, as excellently displayed in the second part. In general, much of the focus in this first part is on delivery of the text, and not so much on bringing it to life. Though this is not true at all of Maddy Page, who in her soft and cheerful interpretation of Iphigenia instantly brought a breath of fresh air to the story. Besides this, the tense and silent ending to the first part beautifully foreshadows this production’s grim and violent second part in which the effect of war on family life becomes apparent.
This second part makes up for what’s lacking in the first part: the cast seem much more comfortable with the text and in their roles here and the chorus are transformed into excellent storytellers, who are a joy to watch. This tragedy takes place at the end of the Trojan war, when the city lies in ruins and the Greek army has been greatly reduced in number. King Menelaus now faces a similar dilemma to his brother Agamemnon’s ten years before: it turns out Helen, Menelaus’ wife, came to Troy with Paris by choice, rather than being forcibly removed, and the Greeks insist she be executed. The trauma of war and its detrimental effect on the Greek warriors and Agamemnon’s sanity are conveyed wonderfully by the entire cast. Tom Bannon’s portrayal of a man grown weary from all that he’s had to sacrifice for a hopeless war is convincing and has a beautifully desperate quality to it.
All in all, this adaptation is an impressive feat of writing and a pleasure to watch. The large contrast between the traditional, text-heavy first part and the dynamic, tense second part proves once and for all that one look can be worth a thousand words.