Review: Iphigenia in Aulis

This week, we went to check out Iphigenia in Aulis at the Court Theater. I was particularly keen to see this production after seeing 3/4 of the Hypocrites’ All Our Tragic. Also, Court Theater is really a gem in Hyde Park. I’ve seen three of my all time favorite shows there: James Joyce’s The Dead, Joan Didion’s A Year in Magical Thinking, and An Iliad (twice).

Iphigenia in Aulis is the first in a series of three Greek tragedies that Court Theater is putting on in the next three years. The story takes place just before the Trojan war. All the Greek ships are stationed at Aulis waiting for winds to take them to Troy. Spoilers ahead. Agamemnon faces a terrible choice for the sake of his family and Greece. A prophet has told him that the fleet will not go unless Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter Iphigenia. So he lures her to Aulis under the pretext of a wedding to Achilles.

It’s a fascinating play about honor and free will/fate. Agamemnon wrestles with his conscience over this horrible fate for his daughter. Either way he is screwed. He can save his daughter, dishonor his oath or kill his daughter and disobey his oath to his family. He berates Menelaus for his obsession with his honor and his faithless wife. Then we have Achilles who rants about the misuse of his name for horrible deeds.  With Greek tragedies, it’s always about honor. But then there is fate/free will. Should characters do what the gods have ordained? Should they deny the gods? Can they? If they choose to give themselves up to fate, isn’t that free will?
I thought the production was good. The staging had the same feel as An Iliad. The action took place in a dirty, cluttered place, like a basement or ship dock. I think it worked with the story. The army has been stuck in this holding place for months (possibly a year if I remember correctly). There was a chorus of women. They were my absolute favorite part of the production. They were really fantastic. They wove together sentences to paint these scenes off stage, like Achilles riding with his men. It was slam lyrical poetry. They sang, whispered judgment, conversed with the characters. Every time Helen’s name was mentioned, they spat. I don’t think I’ve seen such an effective chorus before.
The costuming was great. The chorus wore combinations of purple, turquoise and blue outfits, which contrasted with the drabness of the set. The costuming of all the women seemed suggestive of a wedding, which hit home even more the cruelty of the story.
One thing that bothered me throughout the play was the issue of Helen. I’m sure this is more to do with the script rather than the staging. Characters constantly curse her for causing this misery. One constant refrain is: “Why should Iphigenia suffer for Helen’s crime?” I found this problematic to blame everything on Helen. First, the characters admit that Paris kidnaps her and rapes her. So one has to question how unfaithful she really is. Second, there is an army of Greece that is choosing to go to war with Troy over her. Yes, there was an oath and honor has to be maintained…blah blah blah. These are all choices that characters make. Helen may have been the catalyst for this all but she is unfairly condemned for Iphigenia’s cruel fate. Later in the play, there is discussion about how the barbarians prey on Greek women…and then we just get into some xenophobia. Problem play in my eyes.
This play was a nice complement to Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, a story of Achilles’ life through Patroclus’ eyes, that I read earlier this year. It’s one of the top books for me in 2014. This story is told so differently in the work, after all, it’s from Patroclus’ point of view. I love being able to contrast the same moment in two different works.
Speaking of two different angles, one must wonder how this production compared to All Our Tragic. That’s a good question. WIth respect to this specific play, I cannot say since Iphigenia was in the part that I missed from the grand opus. (I’ll see it next summer to right that wrong). I think I liked both in their own ways. I liked the ambition of All Our Tragic and how the stories are interwoven with each other. This Court Theater play was more about the language (albeit translated from Ancient Greece). There was more time to consider the individual actions while All Our Tragic was one tragedy after another. I also appreciated that the Court Theater production had the violence off stage while All Our Tragic used a lot of stage blood. The former is a little bit more in the spirit of Greek theater. Then again, it’s way more effective to feel the grief of characters when their loved ones (or enemies) are covered in blood. I’m not sure. They feel so different even though they handle the same material. Go see both and judge for yourselves!
That’s all for now.

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