There is something excruciating about ‘Girl on an Altar’, veteran Irish playwright Marina Carr’s new adaptation of Aeschylus's ancient tragedy ‘Agamemnon’. Pounding and relentless, it narrates Greek general Agamemnon’s betrayal of his wife Clytemnestra after he offers up their young daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice for the sake of war. But while it remains an intricate study of men and their violent capabilities, Carr has pushed Clytemnestra’s turmoil centre stage.
Directed by Annabelle Comyn, the result is a torturous picture of grief. Told under never brightening, smoked lighting designed by Amy Mae, the first and most engaging section is a stomach-churning recounting of the lead up to their child’s murder. Eileen Walsh as Clytemnestra vents her story with knowing anguish from the future, while David Walmsley’s Agamemnon is an unwavering, power-crazed warrior, desperate to secure his dominance.
Both are tectonic performers with arresting chemistry. Stuck between her remaining desire for her husband and despising him for his monstrous filicide, Walsh is superb at playing mental confliction. Together, the pair’s scenes are electric; a back and forth verbal battle that renders their mutual obsession for one another – even if their will-they-won’t-they moments are stretched out far too long.
Carr has written most of the drama in lengthy, lyrical monologue sections. But while this is wholeheartedly Clytemnestra’s story, other characters also get a chance to give their side. Pivoting from one voice to another, we are gifted multiple perspectives of the same event. It is an ambitious stylistic decision, even if the repetitive structure eventually gets tired.
Much of the production’s strengths lie in its ability to sustain intensity. The volume of the echoey soundscape created by Philip Stewart is raised in nightmarish sequences where Clytemnestra is haunted by her daughter’s memory. Water-like projections are sprayed across the soil-edged stage as time marches onwards. It’s effective, but the heightened air of tragedy starts to feel too indulgent in the second act.
The image of a murdered girl on an altar looms over this production, where the children that are spoken of are never seen. Despite its imperfections, it is this disturbing vision that will stay with you long past the bloody finale.