It’s less than a year since Euripides ‘Medea’, starring Fiona Shaw and directed by Deborah Warner opened at the Abbey. Having received praise and critical acclaim en masse, the play has transferred to London’s theatre heartland. This week, another work by the prolific Grecian playwright opens at the Abbey yet again under the direction of a female director. This time it’s the turn of Katie Mitchell, who like Warner, is an Associate Director of the Abbey and Peacock Theatres.

This 2,500 year-old tragedy is given a contemporary setting without diluting any of the historical events and issues. The result is a challenging production of tremendous emotional impact, drawing the viewer in completely on a variety of levels. It’s a powerful tale of fate, ambition and nationalism told through the eyes of one family. Iphegenia is the eldest daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, is husband to the errant Helen, who has been swept off to Troy by Paris. Menelaus turns to his kin, asking the army general to help, but the problem is two-fold: Agamemnon has lost control of his army at the Aulis encampment and has fallen foul of the Goddess Artemis. She has orchestrated unfavorable weather conditions preventing the army from crossing the sea to Troy until Agamemnon agrees to sacrifice Iphegenia.

Euripides often provoked outrage with his atypical portrayal of women, and here the female characters are depicted as bastions of nobility, courage and honour against weak-willed over-ambitious men. Kate Duchene is outstanding as Clytemnestra, a stoic, strong-willed woman who rails against her husband’s decision regarding her beloved daughter. Pauline Hutton, as the childlike Iphegenia, dances on our heart strings with her initial tears and eventual courageous acceptance of her fate. The weight of such a female cast is underpinned further by the all-female chorus, decked out in 1950’s headscarves, sunglasses and underskirts. Chris McHallem is a fine Agamemnon, if lacking a little in warmth given the emotional nature of his plight. His feuding brother Menelaus appears sporadically in the play but is represented with great vigour and presence by Frank Laverty.

The play is frugally lit most of the time and coupled with an ominous, constant undercurrent of sound (wavering only slightly in pitch). The sense of danger and impending tragedy is skilfully constructed, grasping the audience as they look on helplessly at Iphegenia’s self-sacrifice. It is a startlingly effective piece of theatre, the kind that leaves you cathartically drained with tense shoulders and a pounding heart. An emotional whirlwind of power, ambition, tragedy and loss, which should affect you in the way plays are supposed to.

Sinéad Gleeson

Iphegenia at Aulis is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin from 28 March – 21 April 2001.