January 6, 2016, by Alex Mullen
Stagestruck: Interviewing Robert Icke
Lynn Fotheringham reports on an exclusive interview with Robert Icke:
Recently I went down to London to interview Robert Icke of the Almeida Theatre for my forthcoming conference, Sacrificing Iphigenia Through the Ages. His mind-blowing modernisation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (which he both wrote and directed) wowed London theatre-audiences this summer, first at the Almeida and then in the West End; two weeks before we met, he was awarded the Milton Shulman Award for Best Director at the annual Evening Standard Theatre Awards. For me personally, Icke’s Oresteia was the highlight of the Almeida’s wonderful Greeks season, with the day-long performance of the Iliad (which he also masterminded) coming a close second.
The reason Icke’s work relates to my conference is his expansion of Aeschylus’ brief reference to the Iphigenia’s sacrifice, in the Agamemnon, into an entire first act. He has already explained this decision, mentioning that modern audiences can’t be expected to know all the back-story, and that it humanises Clytemnestra. But I felt that there was more to be said, and one of the key features of my conference is having creative practitioners speak alongside academics – so I invited him. Unfortunately he will be in the last week of rehearsals for his new version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya on the dates of the conference (29th-30th January), and there’s no way he can attend.
The good news was that he agreed to film an interview to be shown exclusively at the conference. So on 4th December I set off to London with a cameraperson and a folder full of notes. We met at the Almeida offices in Islington, and Rob was extremely generous with his time, talking for almost two hours. So now I have an editing job on my hands…
One of the things I was most impressed with in this adaptation of the Oresteia was the way it engaged so closely with Aeschylus’ text despite the changes entailed by setting the story in a modern context. This mixture means that for any audience-member who knew Aeschylus, Classicist or theatre-fan, the evening was a constant alternation between moments of delighted recognition and moments of genuinely not knowing what was going to happen next. I like to think the resulting experience was not unlike that of the fifth-century Athenian audience at a new tragedy, knowing the rough outlines of the myth but aware that the dramatist might choose to take things in an unexpected direction.
As well as filling in the story for the less Aeschylus-obsessed members of the audience, the Iphigenia-act laid the ground beautifully for this experience, because it was such a departure in structural terms and at the same time so engaged with the mythic story. Talking with Rob confirmed how much effort had gone into this tour de force, and how deeply he loves the Oresteia. It was a privilege to get to interview him and will be a privilege to share the interview with the conference-delegates in January.
Top: Lynn Fotheringham and Robert Icke, (c) Matt Brooker.
Bottom: Almeida Theatre 2015 production of Oresteia [Ilan Galkoff, Lia Williams, Luke Thompson, Angus Wright, Eve Benioff Salama], (c) Manuel Harlan.
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