Euripides' last play, Iphigenia at Aulis is one of the most caustically acute dramas ever written about the twisted psychology and murky self-serving motives of men about to embark on war. It was composed when the author had witnessed 24 years of conflict with Sparta from which he feared Athens would never be able to extricate itself. So you can see why, in the ignominious aftermath of the war in Iraq, the director Katie Mitchell was drawn to the piece. You can appreciate, too, why she felt compelled to intensify its harshly satiric and debunking qualities in this wonderfully edgy and mordant revival.
The Greek fleet has amassed at Aulis, all set to launch an attack on Troy. But then the wind drops. A propitious breeze is promised if Agamemnon, commander-in-chief, will sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis. With his leadership in question, he grasps at this chance and sends for Iphigenia on the fictitious pretext of marrying her to an unwitting Achilles. Racked by indecision, he dispatches a second letter countermanding the first, but it is intercepted by his brother Menelaus, cuckold husband of Helen, the cause of the commotion.
Mitchell has set the proceedings in the 1940s, in a dilapidated army-requisitioned HQ. The chorus of women from Chalcis who have travelled to gawp at the assembled legends are a suburban fan club, garbed in Vera Lynn-style black evening dresses, autograph books at the ready. Though the humour is sometimes forced (as in the formation ballroom dancing that substitutes here for the chorus's ritualised movement in the original), the fan worship of these women forms an ironic counterpoint to the shifty behaviour of the Greek leaders, whom the play systematically cuts down to size. Mitchell creates a world where, even when they are uttering laudable sentiments, the top brass dart anxious glances over their shoulders, and the prevailing mood is one of harried speed (speeches are delivered on the run) and jitteriness.
A hunk of moral cowardice posing as patriotic principle, Ben Daniels' finely conflicted Agamemnon is boxed in by fear of rival leaders, and an army who, now knowing about the deal with Artemis, are baying for his daughter's blood. Self-image is of paramount importance: for example, Justin Salinger is wittily cast as a short, vain Achilles, irked that he wasn't politely asked first before Agamemnon used his name as a snare for the sacrificial daughter.
Mitchell ratchets up the tension, and Hattie Morahan's painfully direct Iphigenia finally gives herself up for Greece, but in this version, there's no mystical serenity - she is bundled off by Menelaus (Dominic Rowan). And here, the chorus, having seemingly learnt nothing, smooth down her distraught mother, Clytemnestra (Kate Duchene), for the bogus photo-opportunity created by the child's supposed apotheosis. Unforgettable.
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