Clytemnestra by Gwyneth Lewis | Theatre

Clytemnestra by Gwyneth Lewis | Theatre

Penny Simpson reviews Gwyneth Lewis’s first stage play, Clytemnestra, at the Sherman Cymru, inspired by a story from Aeschylus’s Oresteia.

A story from Aeschylus’s Oresteia is the inspiration for Gywneth Lewis’s first stage play, one which subverts its original source material with great assurance and fluency. Clytemnestra is given a voice which echoes down the centuries, the voice of a grieving mother whose child has been unlawfully killed. Following an unnamed war, Agamemnon has bartered his daughter Iphigenia in a deal for food in a country where rival tribes fight over scarce resources. The deal has not panned out as he hoped, to put it mildly.

The drama unfolds in a near dystopian future where the ravages of war have turned the moral high ground quite literally into a ‘kill floor.’ The setting shift-shapes from domestic interior to blood spattered abattoir effortlessly thanks to takis’ compact design: three steel towers and a single crumbled wall. The abattoir is ostensibly the family business but it’s also an apt backdrop for the bloody drama which follows. Woven through Lewis’ evocative text is Simon Thorne’s chilling soundscape, which powerfully hints at the tragedies to come in a series of amplified whisperings, guttural mutterings and muted screams.

Clytemnestra by Gwyneth Lewis review Sherman cymru
Jaye Griffiths in
by Gwyneth Lewis
Sherman Cymru
Director: Amy Hodge
Cast: Rhian Blythe, Matthew Bulgo, Jaye Griffiths, Nia Gwynne

Lewis’s brutal storyline is layered with diverse voices, achieved through allowing each of her central characters to be partnered by a Fury. These figures embody the characters’ more primitive desires, primarily the desire for revenge. They writhe and slither across the stage, shadowing the protagonists in an increasingly demented fashion, as well as throwing into stark relief the conflicting emotions of Clytemnestra, her surviving daughter Electra and Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin. This trio of blood relatives are engulfed in their own private war, set into motion by a murderous past which is not to be defeated until more blood is spilt. Whilst the ending is never in doubt, it is challenged by the trio who seek to justify their actions even as they are being manipulated by their malicious and determined Furies. Clytemnestra is unquestionably a woman wronged. Tormented with grief, she falls in to the trap that the seer Cassandra identifies at the outset: once someone acts they think less. And so the bloody spiral spins on.

In spite of its title, this feels like an ensemble production with an array of pitch perfect performances. Jaye Griffiths’s Clytemnestra is stunning. On first sight, she’s a baying she-wolf, eating up her daughter’s ashes. When Agamemnon returns home with much-needed food (of a less unorthodox variety), she dons a more regal pose and for a split second it’s possible to believe her battle cry on behalf of ‘the vengeance mothers.’ Nia Gywnne plays her white-faced Fury, a demanding presence realised in an impressive double act with Griffiths. Rhian Blythe brings pathos and a rare glimpse of compassion to the role of Electra. She is cruelly spurned by her mother, but still attempts to steer by a moral compass that is conspicuously ignored by the rest of her dysfunctional family. Jonah Russell’s Aegisthus sloughs off his Fury’s demands for revenge, but it’s too little too late. Russell captures well his anguish and doubt.

Nick Moss has the unenviable task of making Agamemnon appear less of a monster than is suggested, something he achieves when he finally shows his paternal instincts. On his journey home from war, he takes pity on a distressed young woman. It’s Cassandra, the seer, beautifully portrayed by Kezrena James as a girl-woman who knows more than she should, and not from choice. Moss’s Agamemnon flits from pity to hope when he mistakes her for his dead daughter. Adam Redmore, Matthew Bulgo and Eiry Thomas make up the Chorus of Furies and abattoir workers. They seem to be on stage constantly, ringing the changes with enviable stamina. As the calorie-starved abattoir workers they’re funny too, and a refreshing contrast to a ruling clan hell bent on securing its ruin.

Director Amy Hodge brings a deft touch to her staging of the play, punctuating the action with some electrifying images which lend additional colour and weight to Lewis’s poetic, but spare, text. In a recent interview, Lewis said she wanted to write a sequel. It’s not a bad idea.

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Penny Simpson is a regular contributor for Wales Arts Review.