Each of the intervals during the three hours, forty minutes running time of the Almeida Theatre's Oresteia is announced as a break by the Chorus (Rudi Dharmalingam). We are instructed to return within the designated time or be refused admittance, and there are clocks counting down the minutes and seconds just to make sure you know.
It isn't as much of a gimmick as it first appears but part of a theatrical device that only becomes clear as the play progresses although it works brilliantly at getting everyone back in their seats for a prompt start.
The clocks are not the only way that director Robert Icke plays with time during this powerful production and neither is it the first time he plays with the audience.
Oresteia, the first in the Almeida's Greeks season, was originally three plays telling the story of Orestes (Luke Thompson) the son of Klytemnestra (Lia Williams) and Agamemnon (Angus Wright). In this adaptation by Icke he melts the three into one story but introduces elements that are usually told in other Greek tragedies. For example, rather than starting the play at the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan war he begins with the events leading up to his departure it helps put Klytemnestra and Orestes' behaviour into context.
In Icke's Oresteia what you get is the story of a family torn apart by faith and tragedy which raises questions about justice and revenge. Agamemnon's lands are threatened by war and he puts his faith in the Gods whom he believes have sent him a sign: He must kill his youngest daughter to ensure victory. It is an act he naturally agonises over: is the death of his treasured daughter worth it to save many other lives? It makes for a powerful, emotionally charged and disturbing first act and includes ones of the most distressing scenes I've watched in the theatre.
This is a stunning production for several reasons. It is a production that seeps emotion through its every pore. Williams and Wright give stunning performances that are so raw you feel like you are watching a real life family drama unfolding in front of you. Thompson's emotional anguish and that of his sister Electra (Jessica Brown Findlay) is like a physical pain and at times distressing to watch.
Icke speeds up and slows down the narrative sometimes overlapping dialogue and at others dwelling on simple actions; it heightens the tension.
There are snatches of contemporary songs to match the modern dialogue and a stunning yet simple set. A large table and short bench seating sit in front of huge glass screens that at times are frosted and at others reveals a bathroom behind. The screens also slide open to gain access to the bathroom and double as a cinema screen on which the live images of interviews are projected.
By focusing on the family and the devastation and tragedy that stems from one decision Icke has created a breathtaking and emotionally bruising piece of theatre that grips from the outset. When justice is about to be served the Chorus directly asks the audience whether the case should be one of guilt or innocence. It is a squirm inducing moment of heart or head dilemma. In the end it isn't the audience that decides and it is a relief.
The three hours and forty minutes flew by (there are three separate breaks of 10, 5 and 15 minutes). The last piece of Icke's work I saw, Mr Burns, I appreciated but didn't enjoy. I didn't enjoy this either but in this case it isn't a bad thing, enjoy is just the wrong word. Oresteia left me emotionally battered and if Williams and Wright don't get nominated come awards season then there is something very wrong.
Oresteia runs at the Almeida Theatre until 4 June and due to its long running time starts at 7pm.
Lia Williams was in Earthquakes in London which was written by Mike Bartlett who wrote Cock in which Mr W appeared.