The House of Atreus, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, March 2011

Imagine a Greek theatre director adapting three of Shakespeare’s history plays into a single evening’s show. And imagine he did it by inserting new words and ideas into the original. How would you feel?

It’s not an idle question, because that’s exactly what Richard Twyman and Paul O’Mahoney have done with three Greek plays: Iphigeneia at AulisAgamemnon, and Elektra. The second is by Aeschylus, the other two by Euripides. The programme also credits Sophocles with the third one, but in fact this performance is based on Euripides in which Elektra lives with a farmer, rather than in the palace as she does in the Sophocles version.

Olivia Ross and Ben Lloyd-Hughes as Klytemnestra and Agamemnon, photo by Clive Barda

It’s worth noting that when these plays were written the stories they tell were already part of ancient myth. The Trojan War was hundreds of years in the past, and although this production is in modern costume, which is fine, it’s not so acceptable to insert a lot of modern vernacular in the context of ancient ideas about human sacrifice and honouring the gods. Such distortion of the original is a dangerous game, and I wonder what the point is. Certainly the whole thing was defiantly modern to the extent that in the last play, Agamemnon’s name was scrawled on a wall opposite Elektra’s hut, and written in modern Greek, rather than ancient Greek — what was the point of that?

In the first play there were boxes labelled hellfire missiles, which is fine in a modern context, but this gutted version of the play made Agamemnon — nobly portrayed by Ben Lloyd-Hughes — appear too weak and indecisive, as it omitted the huge build-up of tension while the army stayed becalmed and frustrated in port. When Klytemnestra appears, saying, “If someone could see their way to helping me with our luggage . . .” her words seem odd in the context, and that’s what I mean by inserting modern vernacular. The much repeated phrase, “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is a neat aphorism, but more Shakespeare than Euripides.

It was a similar story with the other plays, and the oft repeated, “Count no man happy before he’s dead” is just not right. This originally comes from the reply Solon of Athens gave to King Croesus of Lydia when asked whether he, Croesus wasn’t the happiest man Solon had ever met. The response was, “He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, in my judgment, is entitled to bear the name happy”. Sophocles, in Oedipus the King, used Solon’s reported words to create a brilliant line of lapidary compactness with which to end his play, “And none can be called happy until that day when he carries his happiness to the grave in peace”. Rather different from the brief line Twyman and O’Mahoney have created.

Despite criticising the adaptation, some of the acting in this student production was very good. I’ve mentioned Agamemnon already, and I liked both Olivia Ross as Klytemnestra and Rachael Deering as Elektra. Laurent de Montalambert came over strongly as Achilles, and Mabel Clements was happily enthusiastic as Iphigeneia, yet strongly determined when she decided to sacrifice herself. The determination suits her name, which means ‘born strong’ in ancient Greek, an epithet applied to Artemis, the goddess who transports her away, replacing her with a deer at the last second.

The direction was very effective at the end when Orestes kills his mother Klytemnestra — it was a nastily convincing murder — but that does not exculpate this bowdlerised combination of three plays. The work of those ancient Greek playwrights has crossed twenty-four centuries or so — a herald of excellence in itself — is that not good enough for us? Why tamper with them?

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