A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Iphigenia at Aulis

A leader fearful of losing his position at the top, a coalition gathered and itching to depart for the Middle East, a muddled cause that needs clarification (is it revenge for injury or the riches of the enemy?), a self-serving brother, a young person who welcomes death and martyrdom -- sound familiar?   The brilliant, modern-dress production of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis opens with Ben Daniels as Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, nervously pacing and looking over his shoulder, the gathered forces outside the barracks ready for him to give the word to launch their thousand ships against Troy.  They are threatening to desert and baying for him to heed the priest’s advice to appease the goddess Artemis by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia in order to gain the wind needed for the becalmed ships.  He has written his wife Clytemnestra (Kate Duchene) to bring Iphigenia to him, pretending that she is to be married to the hero Achilles (who knows nothing of this).  Changing his mind too late, Agamemnon is appalled when his wife and daughter arrive, with luggage and marriage gear in tow, and the events move towards their inexorable conclusion.  Torn between his love for his family (baby Orestes has come along too) and the determination of his self-satisfied brother Menelaus (Dominic Rowan) that the war will be fought to avenge his honor, besmirched when his beauteous wife Helen ran off with Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon forces himself to act, egged on by scurrying yes-men and media reps with cameras and microphones.

Brilliantly directed by Katie Mitchell, women from Calchis arrive as the Greek chorus, a traditional device  to inform the audience of the background of the action and also to comment upon it, advising or warning the participants.  Here the women are lady tourists, celebrity-seekers awed by and gathering autographs from famous heroes like Menelaus and Achilles.  Dressed in post-World War II black cocktail dresses, they perform the chorus’ traditional ritualistic song and dances; here their stylized dance steps are to big-band music playing appropriately “I Can’t Get Started.” It is they who visibly reveal the stress all are under, when they nervously light cigarettes, drop their clutch purses, or sing familiar hymns.  As rational behavior and thought become irrational, even to human sacrifice, the flustered women take out their compacts to shakily powder their noses. The many mirrors they hold up now symbolically suggest the way arguments are being offered by the men in suits, including Menelaus insisting on family honor and Achilles (Justin Salinger) double-talking his way out of involvement. 

Ms. Mitchell states:” I was looking for a play that could have a conversation with the audience about the situation in Iraq.  This is a play that takes a cynical and satirical look at the actions of public figures and that was written at a time when Euripides was losing faith in political leaders and their inability to extricate themselves from an interminable war….What we recognize in this and other Greek plays is the gap between politicians who talk in moral absolutes and our own sense that everything is muddy, complex and confused.”

Give Euripides credit for the mounting emotional tension as Agamemnon struggles with his love for his daughter and his duty to his troops, as Clytemnestra implores him to desist from the priest’s orders (which may or may not be valid, coming from a Trojan traitor), and teen-ager Iphigenia (Hattie Morahan) first pleads for her life and then, like a young suicide bomber, going gladly to her death assured of martyrdom as she sacrifices her life for her country.  As the inevitable consequence draws near, Clytemnestra desperately hammers at the locked doors and then is pinned down by strong-armed men, while Menelaus snatches up and carries out Iphigenia, stripped to her childish underwear for the sacrifice, as her mother is left howling. A mighty wind starts up, and the women of the chorus smooth down Clytemnestra for her photo-op with Agamemnon, who will lead the troops into the ten-year Trojan War. Those who have seen or read Sophocles’ ”Agamenmonor  Eugene O’Neill’s version  (the jewel in the crown of the National’s last season), “Mourning Becomes Electra,” know Clytemnestra will achieve her revenge. Under Ms. Mitchell’s sure, inventive direction, all of the acting is compelling, and the ending unforgettably harrowing.   (National Theatre website : www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.)