A little Beckett with your Euripides

Iphigenia in Aulis
Classic Stage Ireland, Dublin
July 2, 2011

I hadn’t planned on attending any theatre during my two days in Dublin, but I made it to Ireland earlier on Saturday than I had expected. A quick Google search revealed that Classic Stage Ireland was putting on its last night of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis (Google did not reveal the student production of Hamlet with an all-female cast…sigh). Thanks to Prof. Steve Burch, I’m no longer of the naive, Nietzschean persuasion: that Euripides ruined Greek tragedy by over-psychologizing his characters. True, Euripides’ characters do have more interiority than Aeschylus’ or Sophocles’, and that might mean his plays are further from the ‘original tragic rituals,’ whatever those are. It also means his plays are worth seeing.

Iphigenia at Aulis tells the story of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek armies, who must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, who has becalmed the winds, keeping the Greeks from sailing to Troy. As yet, however, the Greeks are a loose band of tribes, not yet a nation: they band together only by sacking Troy. Iphigenia’s death is the price (and cause) of Greece’s identity.

The Classic Stage Ireland production highlights the appalling cost of nationalism in a few key ways. The setting is Beckettian, using a sparse, dirt-strewn stage, and dark, cloudy scrim, and a single, lifeless tree: a set that could easily accommodate Waiting for Godot. The costuming is mid-20th century working class: Clytemnestra stands out in women’s business attire, but the men could be anything from dock workers to farmers (minus the token swords); Iphigenia wears a skirt that emphasizes her youth, while the women of the chorus dress like peasants in timeless skirts and shawls that seem as much medieval as modern. Throughout the play, the actors maintain a strict emotional control, powerfully downplaying their emotions rather than slipping into melodrama, with one key exception: when Iphigenia accepts her fate, she proclaims it, cranking her emotional volume to an eleven. Despite the advice of Spinal Tap, Iphigenia’s enthusiasm felt overwhelming to me. That seems to have been the point: the production stages the sacrifice, and as Achilles brandishes the knife, the cast proclaims the bright future of Greece.

The chorus adds to this final, chilling effect: the group dialogue of the chorus, while spoken, possessed a musical quality throughout. The dialogue was divided into parts. At times the chorus spoke in unison, at times in single voices. More often than not, two or three of the six women would speak while the others waited to pick up the thread of thought. Thus, the dialogue could build, crescendo, and create dissonance, all through the timing of the number of voices speaking at any given moment: the voice of neither the community nor the individual, but of the confused crowd, the mob.

Is this a parable of Ireland? The country gained its independence less than a century ago, and its economy is in shambles. In Dublin, tour guides crack jokes about the state of the nation; the homeless fill the streets; and ruined lots riddle the city (I first wondered whether such empty lots were the debris from some act of terrorism or war; I soon learned that they were building projects that went bankrupt during the Recession). I don’t mean to suggest that Ireland is at fault for the Recession or that some metaphorical child has been sacrificed for Irish independence. But this production of Iphigenia in Aulis seems to ask: what is the cost of a nation?

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