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Classical Play

Agamemnon at UCL: the 2008 production.

The director, cast and creative team describe their experience.

by the director Lisa Gosbee.

“Agamemnon is a subtle tragedy, a domestic tragedy of sorts, upholding the tradition of ancient blood vengeance law. The dark heart of this tragedy lies in the background to the play itself. There is little action in the first half. A beacon is lit signifying the fall of Troy and Agamemnon’s return. The protagonist does not even appear until the mid-point of the play. The violence of the play is never acted out in front of the audience and only ever heard or suggested, interwoven in the extended lyric poetry of the grim-faced Chorus, whose concern for and at their King’s return, resonates throughout. Even the death of Agamemnon is never seen. The impending sense of doom is never lost and there is never the slightest chance that it may be averted. Character is fate.


The creative starting point for me had to be the iconic image of the carpet scene; the simplicity of the imagery in conflict with its heavy-handed implication. Whilst not a fan of spoon-feeding I was however keen to engage with and apply this idea of the innovation and naivety of emergent western theatre playing out in contrast to the raw genius of Aeschylus’ poetry. The bludgeoning use of the bold swathe of red tapestry telegraphing the impending death of Agamemnon suggested a focus towards forceful imagery simply conveyed: the chorus were old and therefore grey, Agamemnon, king wore gold, Aegisthus’ overgarment of striped red echoed the strip of red tapestry symbolizing his complicity etc.

"For me, performing at the Bloomsbury was a big step up from acting in school plays. I had a brilliant time and it was a really good way of getting to know other people in the department."

                                                          Tom Risdon 1st year Classics

The significance of the tragedy takes place not on the stage but in the past, in the dialogue, in the myths that created the trilogy. The visual highlight of the play centres on Agamemnon’s reluctance to hubristically enter his palace on the symbolically blood-red tapestry and the battle of wills that ensues with Clytemnestra to seal his bloody doom. This powerful scene silently juxtaposes with his willingness ten years earlier to vent blood from his household with the sacrifice of Iphiginia at Aulis, to appease Artemis, so the winds might change, enabling the fleet to set sail for Troy. The creative team worked hard to design and build a set which would offer a suitable backdrop to the unfolding tragedy whilst ensuring the incorporation of traditional elements such as the double doors. I was very fortunate that so many people got involved this year and made it the success that it was. From acting to lighting, make up, costume, set building, or programme design there are numerous ways to take part no matter what your level of skill, some applied existing talents and for some it is a great way of taking on a role they had never had a chance to before.

"When I first agreed to do the lighting for Agamemnon, I wasn't really sure what I was getting myself into. I had never done anything like this before but I knew I wanted to get more involved with the Classics Department and try something new. As we prepared to stage the show, I realised that it's not just the actors who execute the play but the combined effort of everyone and to hear applause at the end of a show you were involved in when it all comes together is an amazing feeling."

                                                            Tess Harvey 1st year AWS

The cursed Cassandra’s powerful and unceasingly accurate prophecies of impending disaster fall on deaf ears. Everything she foretells comes to pass, which adds a powerful consciousness to the heart of the play. We spectators, like the characters, are party to the unequivocal intentions of the gods. Although we hear these terrible truths about to unfold, we, like Agamemnon, remain utterly powerless to intervene and stop them. There was a stillness I was trying to achieve across the whole of the play; tragedy does by convention lack movement but I wanted an almost sleepwalking quality felt by both the actors and the audience, like the helplessness you experience in a dream unable to stop the unfolding events playing out before your eyes.

The decision to distance the chorus from the action by dropping the apron of the stage and physically lowering them to audience level highlighted their equivalence to the spectators and also created a physical barrier affecting their ability to intercede with the action on the main stage other than verbally and further limited their movement compounding this sense of stillness. The actors rehearsed for many weeks with their masks, aware that movement and angling of their masked faces must now take the place of overt facial expression, a new acting experience for many of them and we regularly took rehearsals in a mirrored studio, not just to practice their new skill of working with masks but with their peripheral vision gone it was important for each them to gain a sense of the overall picture, to visually realise their role as both an individual and a group. We were also pleased to welcome members of UCLU Bongos society to our troupe this year incorporated into the chorus and performing accompanying rhythms which sought to remind of the religious origins of ancient Greek theatre. The chorus in total numbered a conventional twelve this year an its pliable nature is for me one of the most fun and exciting elements to work with as a director.

"On coming to UCL I immersed myself in the playing and social sides of the Rugby Club and neglected the Department. Agamemnon - the play not the king - gave me the chance to get involved in the Department, meet a different set of people and do something more relaxed and more creative with my time. Don't be discouraged if they stick you in the Chorus - this is the heart of the action and atmosphere of the performance and, more importantly, we had the most fun at rehearsals."

                                                             Marc Davies 3rd year Classics


Clytemnestra is depicted as an uncomplicated wicked woman throughout but her wanton fury burns far hotter than Agamemnon’s decade of absence and the taking of a lover would permit. He effectively killed their family ten years earlier by his actions at Aulis and her scheme to condemn him in the eyes of the gods represents a supreme piece of cunning and treachery. Clytemnestra was played skilfully by first year Mimi Kroll who was surprised and delighted to be offered the lead in her first year at university. I was interested in pursuing this idea of theatre in its infancy and all the actors worked intensively to adopt a style of acting which in the early stages must have felt unsophisticated by today’s standards and very much like overacting especially since they were wearing masks but their efforts paid off and after months of rehearsing they confidently and comfortably delivered what we dubbed ‘epic acting.’

"It was really good fun to be involved in a production that amongst other things displayed the strength of our UCL classics department. There was a real sense of community spirit from both students and teachers, all doing their their bit to make the show a success.
  I would strongly recommend taking part. Acting in Agamemnon really brought the drama to life for me, and never before had I got so strong a sense of the horror and pathos in the play.
  From an acting point of view it was difficult to force myself to stand still. The masks, which I thought would be impossible and embarrassing to wear, helped us to get into the spirit of the thing.
  Months on I've still got lines from Agamemnon buzzing around my head. I’m just waiting for the perfect exam question to crop up!"

                                                                  Mimi Kroll 1st year AWS

Blood is summarily shed in the Atreidai household once more. But this is not enough to satisfy the gods. Murder begets murder and Agamemnon’s dark demise opens the floodgates for further bloodshed in this family feud until the power of law puts a stop to this untrammelled vengeance in the third part of the Oresteia trilogy. In many ways, Agamemnon is less of a play in its own right, than an invitation to continue in the quest for a resolution to blood vengeance law across the rest of the trilogy. In the same vein that is how I also like to think of the annual classics play; as an invitation. An opportunity to take part in something which continues beyond our participation. The classics play is one of the university’s longest running productions at the Bloomsbury Theatre and everyone involved had a very real sense that they are link in a chain stretching back over the last three decades and hopefully long into the future.

"I really enjoyed the experience as I got to know new people and discovered that I really enjoyed working on and around the stage area. I am keen to help out next year and try out for a bigger part like the chorus."

                                                         Stefano Maestranzi 1st year AWS

The play has always been a unifying force within the department, offering a variety of opportunities, experience and development to those who get involved. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to direct the play this year and I’m very proud of what we achieved as a team.”