“Noble men would do well to heed women’s words”
Iphigenia is dead, long live Iphigenia. At the Almeida’s Oresteia, audiences are privy to the a rare dramatisation of the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter according to Aeschylus via Robert Icke but south of the river at the Rose Bankside, we find an alternative Iphigenia who escaped that fate with some divine intervention according to Euripides via Goethe (and also translator Roy Pascal). It makes for a fascinating chance to witness just part of the plurality of responses to Greek tragedies and explore something of their enduring popularity.
Roy Pascal’s translation of Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris was originally written for the BBC in 1954 but remains a muscular piece of striking poetry, densely packed but piercingly urgent when it needs to be, it is frequently arresting not just in its feminist leanings but also in its yearnings for a peaceful solution to conflict. The role of the Chorus is removed, the gods are relegated to background players, the story thus becomes altogether more humane – a sister’s sacrifice, a brother’s pain, the capacity for love and forgiveness that we all possess.
We meet Suzanne Marie’s Iphigenia now living in exile in the land of Tauri (modern-day Crimea) where she’s devoted her life as a priestess in the Temple of Diana. Her work has included persuading King Thoas to stop the practice of sacrificing any strangers who turn up in their land, something which becomes more pressing when the latest shipwreck washes up two Greek gentlemen, one of whom turns out to be Orestes, her brother who thinks she is dead and has murdered their mother in retribution for her slaying of their father.
Torn between a king who has protected her for many years and who now wants to marry her, and the promise of a family life that she has long been denied, the play hinges on the demanding role of Iphigenia and Marie deals sensitively with this totemic part. Sparing us none of the anguish as she finds out what has befallen her family, she layers in vulnerability to her power, creating a character whose hard-earned wisdom shines above all, reminding the men who surround her who is really responsible for the bloodshed that haunts them.
Pamela Schermann’s production makes customary good use of this historic venue, Gillian Steventon’s set using its ruins to suggest Hellenic temples, its water to evoke the lapping shore of the Mediterranean, and Petr Vocka’s lighting heightening the atmosphere of this already charged world. James Barnes’ stubborn Thoas is a model of recalcitrant masculinity, Ben Hales’ tormented Orestes is powerfully moving and as his companion Pylades, Andrew Strafford-Baker subtly suggests an emotional depth akin to the Song of Achilles.
And who knows, maybe the lessons here, born of Greek/German collaboration no less, are ones that could and should be heeded now, resonating as strongly here as they ever could have done in Ancient Greece or the German Enlightenment.