Now here’s a scenario. The Australian troops, recently ordered to war in Iraq by Tony Abbott to be part of the Coalition of the Willing, or whatever the current group of US-led countries is called, refuse to go until Abbott sacrifices one of his own daughters.
Before we start spluttering about how wrong and unnatural this is, think about it. He’s sending off other people’s children to be sacrificed, not in the defence of their own country, but in a war to bring about the conquest of another nation that has nothing to do with Australia. And he’s not even going to fight the battle personally — how long is it in the Western world since our leaders personally headed their troops on the field? It was George II in 1743, if memory serves. Making a flying visit to an army’s mess tents is no substitute, for at no time in the last 260 years has a political leader actually faced an armed enemy.
Back in the days, though, a king was expected to lead his troops onto the field, in literature at least as far back as the time of the Battle of Troy in the 13th century BCE. In Euripides’ 2500-year-old-drama, Iphigenia in Tauris, this is exactly what happens. Iphigenia’s father, Agamemnon, has promised to join a coalition to go to war against Troy to take revenge for the kidnap of Menelaus’ wife Helen by the Trojan prince Paris. He therefore has a political agenda, which he must carry out if he is not to bring shame on himself and risk the whole military operation. But this is where the political becomes the personal, for his soldiers decree that they will not sacrifice themselves in somebody else’s war unless Agamemnon himself sacrifices something he holds most dear.
Put like that, it’s a reasonable scenario, and American playwright Charles Mee has reinterpreted the story for modern times, making us think about whether it might perhaps be just a matter of distance that makes a problem go away — it’s easier not to think about the slaughter of young lives if they’re thousands of kilometres away on a remote battlefield. And these days, also, we probably tend not to think of the armed forces as having consciences of their own — they are there to carry out their leaders’ commands without protest. But local director Dave Sleswick demands that we think of the issue from the individual’s point of view, by giving it his own twist in a thrilling adaptation that employs sound, lighting, movement and colour that makes the old story resonate for us today. Maybe the cast of mainly young actors don’t get the diction quite right, maybe they’re not always completely assured in their characters, but as an ensemble they are very impressive.
To Sleswick belongs the praise for the parade ground exercises, so that the troops are like automatons, almost mindlessly carrying out their exercises until they drop. To him belongs credit for the slick choreography reminiscent of the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story; for the squad of 13 soldiers who are individuals as well as a mass; to him the praise for the totally brilliant set pieces like Iphigenia’s donning of her bridal dress, where her innocent beauty is mirrored in five big looking glasses held up before her; and for the tension of the wedding feast, where she, like the thirteen guests, really thinks there is going to be a wedding rather than the murder her father has planned.
For that is what the evil Agamemnon has done — convinced both Iphigenia and her mother Clytemnestra that the girl is to be married to the hero Achilles (he of the vulnerable heel, if you remember). So the wedding is set up and not until the last minute is Achilles, a rather reluctant bridegroom, told the real plan.
This is no stodgy worthy re-telling of one of the great Greek myths. Rather it is full of colour and movement, with stirring music ranging from Jewish dance to the keening sounds of the bagpipes on Culloden’s field, to the full extravagance of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And the last scene at the wedding banquet, where the guests have been told of the evil plan and Iphigenia willing accepts her fate and goes out with her father to face certain death (Charles Mee has played tricks with the original story here), is one of the most gripping scenes I’ve seen in a long time.
Whoever said that the stories of the Ancient Greeks had no relevance to our own times? Tony Abbott, see this play and weep.