As you enter the cavernous Park Avenue Armory for writer/director Robert Icke’s take on the Aeschylus trilogy Oresteia, TV screens in the anterooms proclaim the exact time, seconds ticking away. I was running slightly later than I’d have liked and, in the interest of full disclosure, I desperately needed the restroom. With time so visibly slipping by, Icke was already raising my blood pressure. He was already establishing the incredibly high stakes that would continue for the next three hours and 40 minutes.
The Armory has brought Icke’s production over from London’s Almeida Theatre, where it originally played in 2015 and they have paired it with Icke’s staging of Hamlet, also an Almeida production, from 2017. Hildegard Bechtler’s set design recreates the Almeida’s brick walls inside the Armory, but the scale feels significantly amplified for the larger room. Some actors have returned (in particular, a stunning, ice cold Angus Wright reprises his roles in both plays), but most are new for reasons of scheduling, global pandemic, injury, or a combo of the three.
Icke’s goal in placing the two works next to each other for the first time is to show how these epic family dramas written almost 2,000 years apart have connections across the yawn and persist as foundational rocks of the theatre today. What happens, though, is that one of the plays (I’m talking about you, Hamlet) falls in the shadow of the other. I’m not about to say Hamlet’s not a good play–it’s Hamlet. But in its presentation here, I’m not convinced Icke’s heart is behind it. Oresteia has been given a complete, contemporary rewrite, letting his voice as a writer mesh with his vision as a director. Every character explodes onto the stage. It’s visually arresting and emotionally shattering. Hamlet just sort of occurs and is brought down by some ill-conceived choices.
Icke’s approach to the two plays can be distilled most clearly by looking at their two lead characters: Klytemnestra in Oresteia and Hamlet in Hamlet. Coming in, Klytemnestra is a classic villain of Greek tragedy and Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most famous hero. Icke swaps those trajectories: one intentionally, one I’m not so sure about.
Icke interpolates a riff on what appears to be Euripides’ Iphegenia at Aulis at the top of the Aeschylus cycle, though that playwright is not credited. In this first chunk of Oresteia, Agamemnon receives a prophecy that the ongoing war will end if he murders his daughter, Iphigenia. His advisors urge him to do it and he visibly wrestles with the good of his family versus the good of his country. Icke shows us genuine tenderness and warmth among the family; Klytemnestra and Agamemnon seem genuinely close with their children. Wright, as Agamemnon, and Anastasia Hille, as Klytemnestra, have a knock-down, drag-out scene of emotional volatility as she expresses how devastating it would be if he goes through with killing Iphigenia. Icke then physicalizes that devastation by throwing open one wall of the set and blasting Klytemnestra with wind and detritus after the act has been committed. This prologue to the Oresteia proper goes miles in explaining who Klytemnestra is and why she does what she does later. Her actions become logical conclusions and when her children creep in to murder her, they become impulsive and ignorant, forgetting what incited the whole mess in the first place.
It’s a thrilling re-framing of the material. Electra and Orestes are so often portrayed as protagonists, but here, it’s Klytemnestra all the way. Hille was a last-minute replacement for an injured Lia Williams, who originated the role in Icke’s Almeida staging, but you’d never know she’s new to the material. In Hille’s incisive performance, Klytemnestra is always right–she’s doing exactly what needs to be done. She’s a politician’s wife and a loving mother who is then turned into someone capable of murdering her husband in the bathtub and dragging his naked body down three stairs into the dining room. Hille never plays her as “crazy,” though; there’s no eye-bugging, no throat-grasping, no hair-shredding. What becomes terrifying about her is how realistic she seems and how much you’re rooting for her. As soon as it feels like you shouldn’t be cheering her on, you remember how her husband murdered their daughter because he thought it would end a war and there’s no more anti- in front of the hero. Icke’s reframing and Hille’s performance are genius in how they take a classically reviled character and turn her into a multi-layered, sympathetic person.
Conversely, in Icke’s Hamlet, the production takes its protagonist and makes him unbearable. Alex Lawther, usually excellent, isn’t so much a melancholy Dane as an utterly insufferable one. Lawther’s performance, either because of direction or his own choice, turns Hamlet into an entitled rich kid who is rude to literally everyone. Lawther takes more than his time with Hamlet’s soliloquies, drawing out every word, pausing for emphasis on every phrase. It’s not just his slow, painstaking delivery, though. Lawther’s Hamlet has a moony, disconnected disposition that seems unrelated to his grieving. In fact, he doesn’t really seem upset about his father’s death as much as he seems upset that nobody’s happy to see him when he crashes his mother’s wedding. His closed-off demeanor feels like something he had even before he went away to Wittenberg.
Icke casts a woman in the role of Guildenstern (Tia Bannon) and suggests through staging that Rosencrantz (Calum Finlay) is her boyfriend. Hamlet flirts with Guildenstern in front of Rosencrantz and dismisses him as if he’s not there. Hamlet is also very physical with Ophelia (Kirsty Rider), both sexually and, after she breaks it off with him, violently. Turning Hamlet into an abusive, womanizing fuckboy only serves to make him more of a drag. It’s difficult to sympathize with his Hamlet, which makes it impossible to succumb to the play. Where Oresteia flies by, despite its lengthy run time, almost every minute of Hamlet sits heavy and hard.
The steep drop between the two plays might be attributable to something as simple as Icke’s being the writer and director of one piece and only the director of the second. With Oresteia, he had the ability to shape the language and the arc of the characters as he wanted, but with Shakespeare’s play, it would be foolish to touch the text. (He does make some snips and insertions, but they’re mostly unnoticeable.) But there’s more to it than just the text. I did not see Andrew Scott originate this iteration of Hamlet, but I find it hard to believe he played the part like Lawther is. I can think of no similarities in the two actors’ sensibilities, which makes me wonder what Icke was trying to do by casting someone so different in the same production.
Bechtler’s glass box set and Natasha Chivers’ lighting design fare well in both plays, doing a lot to differentiate the looks of the plays with only some furniture swapped out and curtains tacked up. There is a liminal area upstage that serves as both Gertrude and Claudius’ dance floor, bedecked with balloons, and the bathtub/deathbed for Agamemnon and it’s gorgeous in every regard. Tom Gibbons’ sound design weaves in music (The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Laura Marling), but it’s not just playing in the background. Gibbons distorts “God Only Knows” when Agamemnon thinks about Iphigenia and the Dylan comes in and out and moves around the stage as the characters do. It goes from the theatre’s speakers to Ophelia’s headphones at one point in a particularly pleasing feat of design. Marling’s score is unobtrusive in Hamlet, but deftly brings in underlying emotion when needed. Video appears in both, but is used most significantly in Tal Yarden’s design for Hamlet. A bank of monitors descends into the space and that’s where Francisco and Bernardo spot the ghost of Hamlet’s father, in ghastly night vision, walking around the cellar.
Additional standouts from the cast are Luke Treadaway in both Hamlet and Oresteia and Jennifer Ehle as Gertrude in Hamlet. Ehle and Wright have great chemistry; it actually feels like Gertrude and Claudius love each other. Her Gertrude is chilly and dismissive of Hamlet, but can you blame her? When she begins “There is a willow grows aslant a brook…” in the play’s final act, there is an absolute stillness that comes over the massive theatre and that’s the wonder of one of the greatest actors of her generation exhibiting her powers.
Treadaway plays Orestes in Oresteia and Laertes in Hamlet. He exhibits breathtaking anguish in Oresteia, particularly in the final section as Orestes is put on trial for the murder of Klytemnestra. His body contorts with pain as he is made to question his entire life. His Laertes is jocular and kind until he returns, following the murder of his father, to exact retribution. Though the two have similar goals, Treadaway does not play them in the same way, finding things to make each specific to the character.
Oresteia is such an all-out banger, it would have been hard for Hamlet to match it, even if the production was successful. As I sat through Hamlet, I kept wondering why they needed to do both of these plays (each almost four hours long) instead of just Oresteia. On the flip side, what if they’d just done Hamlet and New York had not been treated to Icke’s vision for Oresteia. I guess I’d rather have both than just one lackluster Danish prince. I was a big fan of Icke’s brutal 1984 on Broadway in 2017 and his choose-your-own-adventure Enemy of the People at the Armory in 2021. I’d put his Oresteia at the top of that list and, well, I’d leave his Hamlet off completely.