Iphigenia at Aulis is an extraordinary play; over two thousand years old, and still brilliantly astute on the price of power, and the timeless tensions between war and humanity, family and state. It’s a play so good in fact, the Gate has decided to stage four different productions of it at once… Sort of.
For The Iphigenia Quartet, four writers have produced responses to Euripides’ text, each told from the standpoint of a key character in the original play. I’m working as an assistant to Elayce Ismail on Chorus by Chris Thorpe, and to Chris Haydon on Caroline Bird’s Agamemnon, and it’s been a fascinating first week. Just as an interest in multiple perspectives lies at the heart of these plays, so the beginning of rehearsals has been a process of adjusting to the daily experience of working with two different directors on two wildly different plays.
With both Elayce and Chris, we started with properly picking apart the text of the plays, each of which poses a distinct set of challenges. Chorus is a very open, poetic piece and so Elayce’s rehearsals have mainly taken the form of lengthy discussions, working through the text and attempting to reach a shared understanding of the work, as well as tentatively considering how we might go about staging it. These sessions also feature a fiendishly difficult warm-up game involving simultaneously bouncing a ball, passing a ball and remembering patterns of colours and names. Apparently Elayce has ways of making it harder. This is a terrifying prospect.
Meanwhile, with Chris, we have set about dividing Agamemnon into units of action, and producing lists of facts and questions to help us flesh out the world of the play and the motivations of the characters that inhabit it. By the end of the week we had started to try out the opening moments of the play on their feet, and to explore the ways in which our work at the table might now inform our practical approach to the play.
Though Elayce and Chris’ approaches differ, the tone of the first week overall has been one of discovery, as we lay the foundations upon which the productions proper will be built.
As well as discovering the plays, of course, we are discovering one another, and our emerging team dynamic. It was remarkable to see the project’s full company assembled on the morning of the first day: eight actors, four directors, two stage managers, a full creative team and some of the Gate’s office staff huddled around a table to hear all four plays read aloud.
It was a morning which gave us a real sense of the thousand-piece-jigsaw scale of the project, and an idea of which holes in the puzzle we are each responsible for filling. Without wanting to jinx anything (anyone who knows the Iphigenia story will appreciate that hubris doesn’t tend to end well) it feels like it’s a puzzle we’ve made a good start on piecing together.
Catch The Iphigenia Quartet at the Gate Theatre, 23rd April – 21st May.