On 29 June , members of the Oresteia cast and Director Robert Icke stayed after the performance to share their thoughts on creating the show. Assistant Director Anthony Almeida hosted. [SPOILER NOTE: This conversation contains references to key plot points and character analysis which you may prefer to read after watching the show.] Below are highlights from the Q&A discussion.
Anthony Almeida: I’ll kick this off with a question for Rob: Why did you feel the need to write a new version of Oresteia?
Robert Icke: For me it’s always about trying to re-discover the impulse of the original thing, and that usually means staying true to the spirit of the law if not the letter. When I see stage directions, I see it as my right to ignore them, or even do the opposite, to see whether it’s even possible.
When Rupert [Goold, Almeida Artistic Director] and I got into conversation about doing a season of Greeks, I felt strongly that the job was to try and stay true to the impulse, which was to say, “These are now questions, these are now plays.” And the way to do that is by making them about now instead of making them about then.
In the first play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the chorus describe to you at length the fact that Iphigenia got killed. And they tell you a different story to the one told by Euripides. Fifteen-year-old me would have had no idea what that story was, and would have been profoundly alienated by someone coming on the stage at the beginning, saying, “Previously, on Greek…” I suppose, for me, it was always about wanting the 15-year-old to have a really good evening and feel like they had everything available to them even if they hadn’t read a word of classical Greek. I don’t understand the point of getting everyone in the same room if a first-time buyer can’t have as good a time as the people who can read Greek.
Anthony: So whose play did this become?
Rob: I get asked about authorship so much, but I can’t get that animated about it because the question for me was always: How do you get a live experience to feel live? How do you get the actors to really talk to each other, and how do you tell the story in real time so you can have an experience that you couldn’t possible get from a DVD?
Audience Member 1: It’s strange for someone who hasn’t experienced any murder. The only thing I can relate to is the disappointment, and revenge! And I thought that you’ve got to do like that Taylor Swift song and “Shake It Off.”
Lia Williams: I think Klytemnestra tried to “shake it off” for a while—until she couldn’t!
Rob: How do you get into the character of Klytemnestra?
Lia Williams (Klytemnestra), Eve Benioff Salama (Iphigenia)and Ilan Galkoff (Young Orestes)in Oresteia.
Lia: I think first of all it’s to do with the writing. It’s got to be really visceral, and something you connect with really strongly. When I first read this, I had an instant visceral emotional response to it, even though I have never murdered anybody!
John Mackay: Some of us have children, and it’s very easy to get the massiveness of what’s going on. But you can easily tap into those kinds of emotions if you just use a little imagination. Acting is about imagination and storytelling. Just ask yourself, “What if it were my child?” And suddenly you’re there and it’s real to you. If the writing is good and allows you to get into it, it’ll just take you there.
Rudi Dharmalingam: I remember reading that first act—I lost sleep over it! I’m a father myself and I think that it’s usually affecting even if you’re not a parent, but if you are it really punches you in the stomach and keeps you awake at night. That’s a measure of how powerful and visceral the writing is.
Rob: That’s the genius of the Greek: it says to you, “You’re probably never going to have to command an army, but you probably are going to have to make hard life decisions.” It’s a different end of the crescendo, but it’s the same crescendo. Just bigger and sexier and more charged.
I think the Greeks stick with us because these things don’t go away. I thought at first that Greek theatre was just Crazy Human vs. Rational Human, but actually it’s not as easy as that.
Lia said to me in rehearsals, in a moment that stuck with me: “You know, I think I might love him a bit too much to kill him.” I thought, “You’d never be able to kill him if you didn’t love him that much, because you’d leave!” And actually the agony is not “I hate him,” because hate is the easy part. The agony is that it’s the person you grew up with, all of that time. Then there’s a little grave with your daughter in it. How do those things go together?
Lia Williams: We decided that she couldn’t carry on existing, knowing that he was alive somewhere else on the planet.
Audience Member 2: One of the key things is there’s war, and war creates this terrible desire for retribution. Once the killing starts you see this level of breakdown, and a very different aspect of human behaviour, and that’s what you touch on so well, making it utterly convincing.
Rob: Did you vote [for Orestes’ guilt or innocence]? Can we get a show of hands? [It’s split.] It’s a tied house!
Audience Member 3: I think in Greek drama, the actors get out of the way of the text a bit. You don’t just engage with them on their level, you also come out and hear the argument and that’s the beautiful duality of this work. I was wondering how you managed to find the balance between it all.
Angus Wright: One of the things Rob encouraged us to do was stillness—I think Hollyoaks is more active. In the family dinner there’s a sense of normality, but when you hit the philosophy it requires stillness, so that you can open up to the audience so that they can read into the bigger concepts. When we do think about death, we go still. Finding that solemn note that plays to all our brains: that’s part of it.
John: I’ve heard that if you’re avoiding emotion, you move. And the way to face emotion and go through it is to stay still. You shuffle and move your weight from one foot to another in avoidance, in insecurity and stillness means that you’re completely connected to it.
Luke Thompson: It’s not a thing where you can just hold on to the text and say, “I’ll just do the text,” because it’s all so huge that that’s not enough! It’s so mythic and so big that just looking at a newspaper or looking around you, it happens everywhere! You find these events and you think, “That’s exactly like this.” Like that thing in Malaysia where they desecrated a sacred mountain and then there was an earthquake! It’s amazing! You just realise that this still happens.
Angus Wright (Agamemnon) and Jessica Brown Findlay (Electra) in Oresteia
Lia: I think that goes back to answering the first question. We do experience extreme things but we temper them in some way or get removed from them. But seeing something like this, it taps into something that you already know.
Annie Firbank: There’s a terrific power in stillness, and this set helps so much, because it’s so strong and wild and yet it’s capable of embracing the domestic and small scenes. It’s just the most wonderful space.
John: I remember getting into a fight when I was about 10 years old, a fight I couldn’t avoid. I wasn’t a fighter, I mean look at me! And I remember in the midst of it that I had this real feeling of actually wanting to kill this guy, it was an adrenalized feeling and it scared the hell out of me that I had that feeling—but it’s actually quite human, and you can tap into that, that feeling of being overtaken by something primal.
Rob: If the actors feel the real thing in the space, you feel it as well. And, for that reason, I have a kind of—I hope—healthy disrespect for text, because what can make theatre boring is when text is the only active ingredient. People speak according to two or three assumptions which just aren’t true in real life, which are a) That people can always say what they mean, and b) That you speak in a vacuum where sense is made and clarity is always illustrative. And I just don’t ever feel that way about the way I talk.
Text is so fundamentally a bad, blunt expression of something so much more complex, which is a person. All great writing has a character quality, and invites the actors to create something that’s deep and personal and completely bespoke to them, and not just come out like a talking head and say it. This is what’s great about these guys, and that’s one of the pleasures of working with them. I’m much more excited about getting the boxers in the ring than I am about saying, “You punch him like that.” I find that completely dead and as an audience member I just sit there and feel that, and the 15-year-old in me just thinks, “I want Grand Theft Auto.”
Audience Member 4: I haven’t read the play, but I was struck at the end by the trial scene, that before the judgment there was talk about the favouring of men, and how society must protect them. How much of that was actually in the play?
Rob: That’s line-by-line Aeschylus.
Audience Member 4: Okay, so how important do you think your characters are as men and women?
Rob: How high is gender on the agenda? Lorna?
Lorna Brown: Well, it is an important part of the play. We had a lot of discussions about this in rehearsal. The girl is killed—it might be a coincidence, but she is a girl! Gender is really important, it’s a man and a woman, and what Athene says about favouring men, I think it’s really interesting because they are. It’s how society was then, and it is how society is now, so for me it’s very important.
Luke: I learned, at least in the play, that simply by being born with a mother and a father you have this massive concept of gender. Watching the play, it does feel like a very gendered thing, and it’s weird because—I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a very straightforward thing—there is a female energy and there is a male energy. You feel traditionally pulled between these energies of your mum and your dad. It’s the questioning point. And maybe 0.5% people actually do want to kill their mother or kill their father? It’s there.
Rob: There’s a really good essay by Simon Goldhill, who I’ve worked closely with on this production, where he talks about how, in Homer, everyone tells Telamachus to be more like Orestes. But when we get to what did Orestes actually did, it says that Orestes actually killed “him”—we presume that the “him” is Aegisthus—and there’s no mention of Klytemnestra until right at end where she’s then just dead, and that was the deal.
One of the things for me about the Aeschylus is that he’s taken quite a patriarchal text and gone, “A son and a mother? It’s not that easy.” So I think it is absolutely on the agenda in the original.
I think the thing that she says about favouring men is also there in the Aeschylus, as in here, as an example of a random argument made by one person that leads to a big decision. One of the points of the Aeschylus is that hard decisions are really hard; you don’t get a satisfying answer and you don’t get sent home with a party bag that tells you what to do if that happens to you.
Audience Member 5: The trial scene was of great interest to me as I’m a criminal lawyer and I just finished with a case about a revenge stabbing, so this is fairly close to the bone! I thought the trial scene was fantastic. I don’t know how much of it was you and how much of it was Aeschylus, but it’s just so now. The arguments going one way and another. And articulating questions that they’re asking: what really did happen? What does being sure about something really mean? To me it was fabulous to see that condensed into drama.
Audience Member 6: I did notice that this was a very light- and sound-heavy show, so I wanted to see, from everyone, what was the collaborative process like and once the light and sound were added, how did that change what you were doing on stage?
Lorna: Something really genius that Rob did was, from day one, incorporate the sound into rehearsals. It made a huge difference.
Rob: Tom Gibbons [Sound Designer] and I have worked together a lot and now weirdly we have this odd sort of synchronicity. The choral music is done by John Taverner and, completely independently of each other, we both settled on him to do the choral music.
Lia Williams: They do work as one person. And Rob tunes into what the actor is doing, so in such a fine way, that it becomes this invisible line between sound and Rob and us.
Jessica Brown Findlay (Electra) and Luke Thompson (Orestes) in Oresteia
Audience Member 7: As a father I found Electra’s mourning profoundly moving. I don’t know the play, but and if she didn’t exist, who is she?
Jessica Brown Findlay: I came into this without any real knowledge of it and decided to leave it at all at the door. For me, Electra has to be completely real or else I’ve talked myself out of the job! For me, Electra serves as a comfort in times when Orestes isn’t quite completely sure of the world and wants someone to bounce off, who will understand. But the mother knows exactly what kind of buttons to press to make sure something doesn’t happen, and that’s when the voice comes back. In a world in which she doesn’t exist, she does. It’s just that no one else can see her.
Audience Member 8: I now think I’d change my vote from guilty to innocent as he’s obviously got diminished responsibility!
Anthony: That feels like a fitting end to the discussion! Thank you all so much for coming!
Oresteia | 29 May – 18 July | Info &tickets