WELL-WROUGHT PRODUCTION HITS MANY MOMENTS OF TRUTH
By Charles Mee
with new material developed by the cast
Directed by Shannon Friday
at Te Whaea - Basement, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington
From 31 Jan 2013 to 9 Feb 2013
Reviewed by John Smythe, 3 Feb 2013
Greek drama pits human fallibility against the ruthlessly absolute rules of the Gods (for which we may substitute the forces of nature in this more scientific age). American writer Charles Mee's Imperial Dreams trilogy has re-contextualised tragedies by Euripides by way of exposing the nature of modern warfare's impact on society.
Orestes 2.0 (1992; 13 actors) resets Euripides' after-war play in a modern world where veterans return from the Trojan War to their homeland bringing the disorder and nightmare of war home with them and reducing it to ruins forever.
Trojan Women: A Love Story (1994; 11 actors) finds a modern world Troy in ruins, and reduced to such disarray and anguish that, beyond recovery, it is destined to spread death and disorder throughout the wider world.
In Iphigenia 2.0 (2007; 11 actors), also set in today's world – and based on Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis – a great imperial power is about to enter yet another war where the political and practical imperatives require its leader, Agamemnon, to do something so morally wrong it ensures his empire's total self-destruction.
In his website page about ‘The (re)making Project', Chuck Mee (as he signs himself) declares there is no such thing as an original play and invites practitioners to “pillage the plays as I have pillaged the structures and contents of the plays of Euripides and Brecht … and then, please, put your own name to the work that results.”* But they are out of copyright, of course, so he adds, “[If] you would like to perform the plays essentially or substantially as I have composed them, they are protected by copyright in the versions you read here, and you need to clear performance rights.”
For her major MTA in Theatre Directing production, Shannon Friday takes a middle course with a version attributed to Mee but with seven actors and “new material developed by the cast.” In Te Whaea's Basement space the audience sits on one raked bank of seats facing a deep performance area backed by red curtains, flanked by red and white flags and fronted with a lectern sporting the same State colours. (Set and costume designer: Rachel Hilliar.)
Attended by Soldiers (Jackson Coe and Michael Hebenton) in contemporary combat gear and toting (replica) combat rifles, Jason Tolley's be-suited Agamemnon delivers an impressive speech in which he clearly envisions acts that will inevitably bring empires to their end, “Because, we see from the histories of empires / none will last forever / and all are brought down finally / not by others / but by themselves, / from the actions that they take / that they believe are right or good / or necessary at the time to do.”
Are we talking here about the consequences of flying civilian passenger planes into New York's World Trade Centre, or killing civilians in the search for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, or both? The link with USA-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seems inescapable.
However (as noted on my review of Mee's Big Love, directed at Studio 77 by Dr Megan Evens in 2011), the playwright also states: “I don't write ‘political plays' in the usual sense of the term; but I write out of the belief that we are creatures of our history and culture and gender and politics – that our beings and actions arise from that complex of influences and forces and motivations, that our lives are more rich and complex than can be reduced to a single source of human motivation.”
Agamemnon is all too aware that “men of affairs” too easily bypass moral laws. “And so it will happen / that some moral law of an unforgiving nature is violated / a law against boundless desire, / or cruelty / a law against coercion / or indifference to the humanity of others / a law against initiating violence / or being required, / in the pursuit of some goal, / to commit an act that anyone might see / is heinous / something finally is done that is so deeply wrong / that the world must rise and crush it / in order for the world itself to go on.”
We have to set aside the unities of time, place and action (articulated by Aristotle, who was born a couple of decades after Euripides died) and ignore the illogicality of his giving this long speech before he urgently calls for the messenger he has sent to be recalled only to find it's too late.
The heinous crime to be committed is that he will sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, because he cannot ask his peers to send their sons to a war in which many will certainly die unless he can prove his equal commitment to the goal by sacrificing one of his only children first. The messenger has been sent to lure her back home – to Washington D C, as it were – on the pretext she is to be married to the war-hero Achilles.
In the original, the sacrifice is to appease the goddess Artemis so that the fleet may be allowed to sail into battle against Troy. Here Mee seems to suggest that taking her life “for the greater good” will somehow save hundreds of other lives, which doesn't compute with me.
In the final moments Euripides has a messenger reporting a last-second switcheroo of Iphigenia for a deer, so that she may survive to become a priestess of Artemis in the sequel, Iphigenia in Tauris. Mee, however, has her sacrificed so that the prophesied chaos and downfall of the state may ensue. And again my logical brain grapples with the notion that although – as Agamemnon tells Menelaus (husband of Helen, whose retrieval from Troy is the purpose of the planned war) – it is the soldiers who have demanded the sacrifice, it is the soldiers who symbolically destroy the state when it happens.
Actually, to be fair, Mee's script has the larger cast confused as to whether to party on or not after Iphigenia is led away and the chaos plays out as a cross between Bacchanalian revels and a drunken riot brought on by Achilles' unresolved guilt. In this production, however, the soldiers simply smash the podium and tear down the flags and curtains, revealing Agamemnon with the corpse in his arms. But perhaps they should be regarded as machines of the theatre rather than soldiers at this point. [… alert ends.]
The action between the premise and conclusion is compelling as the various characters wrestle with the moral conundrum and each other, amid the bizarrely juxtaposed progress of wedding plans.
Seen only in silhouette on the red curtains, gravel-voiced Des Morgan gives a spine-chilling performance as Menelaus, depicted here as the front-line general who has seen and done it all ‘in the field'.
In what I take to be an added scene, Esther White's Iphigenia introduces herself as an over-privileged airhead expecting us to be agog at her knowledge, of and adeptness with, a range of beauty products. Her progress through the wedding preparations towards a sudden maturing – or is it the ultimate in a self-harming? – makes for a memorable performance.
The character designated ‘Bridesmaid' in Mee's script becomes Iphigenia's plain sister Electra in this production, beautifully delineated by Frances Le Vaillant.
As their mother, Clytemnestra, Deborah Eve Rea is formidable. Her progress from ‘mother-of-the-bride-from-hell' through temptress of Achilles and ferocious protector of her brood to shattered shell is powerful in its clarity.
Again I take it the dance sequences played out by the women are added extras, effectively comparing and contrasting female preoccupations with the way the men deal with their lots in life.
Michael Hebenton's Achilles captures the reluctant groom, seducible youth and human soldier authentically through every stage.
The loyal soldier's fight for freedom against “those who wish to take that away / from my nation and my nation's friends” is articulated by Jackson Coe with a sincerity that demands we confront the “complex of influences and forces and motivations” that Mee deals in.
Together the Soldiers converse to reveal the day-to-day lives and aspirations of soldiers en route, in the field and returning from war.
“I like plays that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable,” Mee is happy to admit. “My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life. It feels like the world.”
I'm not sure I buy that rationalisation when the internal logic of the work is disrupted in ways that distract us from the important themes and questions. Nevertheless this fully committed and well-wrought production hits many moments of truth about the human behaviour that threatens what we like to call civilisation even now.
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*According to Wikipedia, Iphigenia 2.0 incorporates some texts from Alan Stuart-Smyth, Jim Graves, Jim Morris, Gaby Bashan, Richard Holmes, Richard Heckler, Dave Grossman, Wilfred Owen, and Anthony Swofford.
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