Kiln Theatre, London – until 25 June 2022
The story of Clytemnestra, whose husband Agamemnon sacrifices their daughter Iphigenia on an altar, slitting her throat with an obsidian knife, as a sacrifice for a wind to carry the Greek ships to Troy, is usually seen initially from his point of view, at least initially.
Marina Carr’s new play retells the story by jumping further forward in the events of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. She begins with the unfathomable act of a father killing his own 10-year old daughter, told from Clytemnestra’s point of view, and focuses on the aftermath. The queen tears her dying daughter from Agamemnon’s arms and, ten years later, he returns victorious to face the consequences of his action.
In Annabelle Comyn’s production, designed by Tom Piper, the world is reduced to the raw materials of Greek myth – blood, wine, and plundered gold – which highlight the eternal, modern question of whether some acts can never be forgiven.
The production is exceptional, riveting the audience to the detail of a marital relationship poisoned beyond repair. Yet, despite what has happened, Clytemnestra still loves Agamemnon while also hating him. Meanwhile, he says: “I would do anything to have your good opinion again.”
Played by David Walmsley, he is a bullock of a man, all muscle and menace, with tattoo reading “human error” and the manner of a Liverpudlian crime boss. There is no doubt that killing his daughter was as much about gaining precedence over rival king Achilles in the eyes of the Greek soldiers.
Clytemnestra is played by Eileen Walsh as a proud woman – strong, mature, and broken. Her agonised behaviour as she wrestles with a situation that will never be resolved without more killing are a study in mental disintegration. Both actors are excellent, as are the rest of the cast: Nina Bowers as Cassandra, young and all knowing, against her will; Daoni Broni as preening love rival Aegisthus; Kate Stanley Brennan as Cilissa, an Amazonian sidelined as a former slave; and Jim Findley as doomed elder statesmen Tyndareus.
Carr has produced a beautiful piece of writing that lays bare the deep flaws in men’s hearts (and it is the men, rather than the women, who steer the world around them into chaos), and the appalling consequences of arrogance and the pursuit of money and power. She does so, unusually, through a constantly shifting narrative perspectives.
Much of the play involves characters, sometimes mid-scene, turning to the audience to explain what is happening from their perspective. Potentially an alienating device, she uses it with great skill to ensure the audience is constantly implicated at the heart of the story, compelled to watch in horror and fascination.
The play ends, of course, with wine – thrown brutally in Clytemnestra’s face and over some of the front row – and a gush of blood that draws gasps from the audience as its soaks the clean, white bedsheets. An exceptional piece of theatre, Girl on an Altar remakes a story that is part of Western cultural heritage, with deceptive ease, as though it could have happened yesterday.