IPHIGENIA AT AULIS
Jericho Arts Centre
1675 Discovery St.
January 27-February 19
604-224-8007, ext. 2
Aeschylus’ 5th century BC Oresteia trilogy is among the best known of the great Greek tragedies, and among the few still produced, as it was last fall at UBC. It tells of the House of Atreus after Agamemnon’s return home in triumph from the Trojan War. Awaiting him is wife Clytemnaestra, not eagerly and loyally as Penelope was for Ulysses, but with hatred and vengeance in her heart. She’ll murder him, then be killed in turn by her vengeful son and daughter Orestes and Electra, who in their turn are pursued by the Furies and get their own tragic plays.
The now rarely produced Iphigenia at Aulis, written some decades later by the younger playwright Euripides, is in effect the prequel to The Oresteia. It tells the back-story: how, after Helen was abducted by Paris, the Greek fleet gathered in the harbour at Aulis to take the avenging armies across to Troy. But the goddess Artemis caused the winds to cease and demanded in exchange for the return of the winds the sacrifice of Iphigenia, 13-year-old daughter of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces. Agamemnon eventually complied and the rest was history—including Clytemnaestra’s long wait to punish her husband for his murder of their child.
Tom Kerr’s United Players production of the clear, colloquial modern translation by Don Taylor tells the story efficiently and mostly effectively, with some chilling contemporary resonance.
Agamemnon (Glen Cairns) is deeply conflicted, torn between his military duty and love for his daughter. Ultimately, he opts for the argument of necessity. He really has no choice, he claims, because if he refuses, the angry, restless army will kill Iphigenia anyway, along with him and all the rest of his family. Cairns’ performance is generally convincing, although his grief at times seems manufactured, and it’s hard to know whether that’s the actor or the character.
Iphigenia (Sarah Holden-Boyd) is at first terrified to learn her fate but finally embraces it—fanatically—loving the idea that she’ll be a martyr for Greece. The youthful innocence Holden-Boyd radiates makes her fanatical self-sacrifice all the more chilling. I couldn’t help thinking of those pictures of Iraqi and Palestinian kid-suicide bombers. At the same time the chorus of ten women, moderate and cautious through most of the play as Greek choruses usually are, turn rabidly, patriotically bloodthirsty at the end, calling on their men to slaughter the Trojans, knowing that the principles for which their husbands and brothers and sons were going off to Iraq—I mean Troy—were well worth dying for.
The plot is further complicated by the roles of angry Menelaus (Mikal Grant), the cuckolded husband of Helen, and erratic, conceited, charismatic Achilles (Andrew Smith), the Brad Pitt character who might save the day but doesn’t—and of course Clytemnaestra (Chantal Ethier), the bitter, shattered mother for whom her daughter’s enthusiastic martyrdom is no consolation for her husband’s betrayal. We see her in the play’s final image and know she’ll have a long memory.