THEATRE / One big happy family

Agamemnon's Children The Gate, London

Paul Taylor
Friday 10 March 1995 00:02 GMT

"You're Daddy's daughter, not Mummy's. Always have been," chides Klytemnestra in Agamemnon's Children, a compilation of plays by Euripides at The Gate.

A woman who has killed her husband might be thought to have sacrificed the right to refer to herself as "Mummy" in front of her bereaved children. The mordant clash in Kenneth McLeish's translation between the innocent- sounding term and the dramatic context gives you a whole new angle on Elektra as the quintessential "Girl whose Heart Belongs to Daddy".

There's another, disturbingly beautiful example later on when a daughter whose mother is being butchered offstage is told that "There inside your cousins are touching her heart." True enough; except the contact is being made with a knife.

McLeish's text is littered with such grizzly pleasures, brought to life in a splendidly intense and wittily thoughtful production by Laurence Boswell. The plays in Agamemnon's Children - Elektra, Orestes and Iphigeneia in Tauris - were never intended as a trilogy and were not written in the order of narrative sequence. Seeing all three back to back (as it's possible to do on Wednesdays and Saturdays) gives you a "prismatic" perspective on the mythic story of what happened to the House of Atreus as a result of Agamemnon's preparedness to sacrifice Iphigeneia at Aulis and his wife's deadly reprisal.

This is Boswell's last production as artistic director at The Gate, the venue with a reputation as huge as its dimensions are small. It's a pleasure to report that for Boswell's swan-song the joint is right back on form.

With a wooden-walled audience-enclosing set which has two steep walkways radiating from the central paved acting area, Anthony McIlwaine's splendid environmental design gives the drama a powerful immediacy. At the end of the first play the gods make their surprise entry stationed on little drawbridges that drop with an absurd, undignified suddenness out of one of the walls. That, and their creepy soft voices, so full of insincere sorrow, bring home to you the slipperiness of deities who can calmly inform a youth like Orestes that the matricidal mission he has accomplished on the instructions of another god, Apollo, was in fact misconceived.

Sara Mair-Thomas is vividly powerful as a spiky-thin, chopped-haired Elektra, all barely repressed hysteria, her baleful pleasure in revenge passing through her body like a shudder of revulsion.

With his chiselled public schoolboy features and fascinating low-key way of conveying the Furies-hounded torments and moral degeneration of Orestes, Charles Daish is also very fine. The way these characters embrace each other, ravenous for comfort, shows you how fate has, in their case, rendered the sibling relationship the chief emotional resource. They become depraved and yet are virginal. As their other long-lost sibling Iphigeneia, Barbara Flynn is deliciously droll, presiding over a tragicomic escape plot in which prior bloodstained guilt actually provides the ruse by which the enemy is outwitted; the last oddly tongue-in-cheek stage of what could have been called Orestes' Development.

n At the Gate, London W11. To 1 April (0171-229 0706)

Paul Taylor

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