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Review: GIRL ON AN ALTAR, Kiln Theatre

Marina Carr's modern adaptation of Clytemnestra's myth is directed by Annabelle Comyn in a moody and atmospheric production.

Review: GIRL ON AN ALTAR, Kiln Theatre

Review: GIRL ON AN ALTAR, Kiln Theatre The Greeks seem to be trending at the moment. Last year TikTok went mad for Madeline Miller's book Song of Achilles, Ivo van Hove brought his mash-up of myths to the Barbican at the start of the month, and the Almeida's latest project is being compared to a Greek masterpiece. London seems to be in a blood-thirsty mood these days and now the Kiln joins in.

Understandably, Greek tragedies have maintained a privileged spot throughout the centuries. Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles have been reshuffled, remixed, and reworked for contemporary audiences at all points in history. Athens isn't said to have invested more on theatre than warfare for nothing. These are highly entertaining stories.

Playwright Marina Carr updates the classic character of Clytemnestra and makes her a woman of our time. Many have told her story, but the general gist is that she murders her husband Agamemnon to avenge the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia during the Trojan War and is subsequently murdered alongside her lover by her son Orestes aided by his sister Electra. The Ancient Greeks were messy.

Directed by Annabelle Comyn, Girl on an Altar meets Clytemnestra ten years after Iphigenia's wrongful death and follows her up to her deed. Reunited after the long conflict, the couple need to come to terms with their resentments over the shared loss. But they are both changed by their time apart and the abhorrent actions of Agamemnon, and each is unwilling to absolve the other.

Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's white marital bed sits on a marble slab in Tom Piper's design, looking as if stranded on a volcanic beach or lying on charred remnants. It's the centre of the narrative, along with everything it represents and implies.

Comyn's production is moody and atmospheric. Her direction and Carr's text share an electric bond, and the character's inner thoughts are voiced to the audience before flowing into dialogue seamlessly.

Stark beams by Amy Mae cut across the stage horizontally, slicing the action crossways and creating a selective game of shadows. The characters almost appear as visions against the black of the set, surfacing out of smoke or popping up on a different side of it.

Eileen Walsh and David Walmsley are the tragic couple and share thrilling chemistry. Where he is fuelled by testosterone and repressed pain, she is shattered and ruled by grief. Kingly and distant, his wife's dissent and resentment become a matter of pride, property, and power for the king of kings.

Where Walmsley projects dominance and authority, she is under his influence completely, heartbroken and shaken by an anguish she can't overcome, forget, or forgive. Agamemnon refuses to bend and see his own mistakes for what they are, but she rejects his perspective as well.

Their argument is a dog eating its own tail in the first half, to the point where it echoes itself until the act breaks. He killed their daughter allegedly to placate the gods but really to assert his presence on his army. Agamemnon believes his hands were tied and Iphigenia's sacrifice was mandated, but Clytemnestra sees him as a cold-blooded murderer.

His pride is mortally wounded by her brazenness at her parading of her affair at the court while he was away. They can't get out of their reasoning, and Walsh keeps bringing up her dead child as much as Walmsley's character wants to keep her buried.

They hurt each other relentlessly in very modern terms in Carr's script, and their rhetoric twists onto itself very much like any late-night argument between excessively proud people does. Her Agamemnon is all pride and no empathy as he channels his regret through violence, while Clytemnestra is a broken mother.

Walsh is a gale, dominating the golden darkness of the stage with a haunted look. Her pleas to Walmsley are met by his refusal to even glance at her. Whenever she moves to strike him - verbally or physically - she restrains herself, bound by her womanhood and subsequent social status.

Carr translates the trauma-ridden women of Greek tragedies exceptionally. Cassandra, the priestess cursed to speak true prophecies who no one will believe and Agamemnon's prize of war, is a delicate and subdued young woman as portrayed by Nina Bowers.

Kate Stanley Brennan is Cilissa, Clytemnestra's slave who feels more like a lady-in-waiting. "What about my children?!" she yells at nobody in particular towards the end, after two hours of preoccupations surrounding other people's.

Carr dooms her women from the get-go. They are pawns in the hands of their husband, father, or next of kin. Tyndareus (Clytemnestra's father, Jim Findley) is appalled by Agamemnon's treatment of his wife not because she is his daughter, but because it's disrespectful to him personally. The action may simmer, but her dialogue is ebullient.

The King of Mycenae promotes Cassandra to Clytemnestra's bed out of spite, convincing himself he is showing his broken wife her place but ultimately only momentarily patching up his crippled dignity. Comyn stokes the fire by turning the royal couple into planets that orbit around one another, magnets that find each other blindly.

Given that it's no proper Greek tragedy if blood isn't shed, Comyn's striking tableaux see that the bed is suitably soaked by the raging Walsh. All Walsh's Clytemnestra wants is for Agamemnon to take responsibility, and he doesn't.

Girl on an Altar is as much a royal kitchen sink drama as it is a commentary on the politics of grief. Carr's narrative skills are enthralling and lend themselves to a great modern adaptation, which Comyn directs with magnetic flair.

Girl on an Altar runs at the Kiln Theatre until 25 June.

Photo credit: Peter Searle

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