Marina Carr’s new play Girl on an Altar, which opened at London’s Kiln Theatre this week, deals with issues of war and the exploitation of women that seem very much of the moment. But this reworking of Agamemnon, the first part of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, also wrestles with eternal questions about love, grief and the limits of forgiveness.
At its heart is the relationship between Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra and two immense and remarkable performances by David Walmsley and Eileen Walsh. It opens with Clytemnestra taking their 10-year-old daughter Iphigenia to Aulus for what she thinks is an arranged marriage.
Instead, Agamemnon has agreed to sacrifice the girl in return for fair winds for his military expedition to Troy, to appease the Oracle and to shore up the approval of his soldiers.
“It was about men. Men! I was losing control of the army. You know this. They thought I’d never do it,” he says.
Ten years later, Agamemnon is back from Troy with Cassandra, a captured princess and prophetess, as war booty. Clytemnestra is still full of grief for her dead daughter and burning with anger and hatred for her husband.
With monologues interspersed within the dialogue, Carr allows her characters each to give their take on what is happening as we watch the tragedy unfolding. The stage is dominated by a large double bed and Cassandra and Agamemnon remain passionately drawn to one another as they destroy each other.
“I wonder why she has such a hold over me. Others I can take or leave, but this one, this one. I see all the Clytemnestras I’ve ever known, memory after memory laid down. The first fatal bolt from the blue. It lodges here still despite all she has done to cut me from her life,” Agamemnon says.
Looking at her husband, Clytemnestra can still see the man she loved.
“I conjure up another Agamemnon. The boy with the visionary eyes, the golden prince of my girlhood who brought me nothing but joy, not this battle-scarred warlord with his daughter’s ghost trailing him. I look at his hands and cannot believe what these hands have done,” she says.
Girl on an Altar is an important new play by one of Ireland’s greatest playwrights and this co-production between the Abbey Theatre and Kiln brings some of the best Irish talent to London. The show will not be coming to Dublin but the production is, according to the Abbey’s artistic director Caitriona McLaughlin, part of the national theatre’s work to ensure that Irish artists can flourish while remaining at home.
“We wanted to give opportunities to Irish artists to be seen in a wider pool and one of the things that’s really hard to do is to build a long career in Ireland if you’re confined to Ireland. So by establishing relationships for artists in London, we give them opportunities to stay living in Ireland but maybe come and do bits and pieces over here. In the case of actors, casting directors see them and get to know them,” she said.
“Also, we feel really strongly that in the context of Brexit and where we all are at the moment and coming out of Covid, we have to be talking to each other or artists have to be speaking to each other. And so it’s really important that we maintain a strong relationship with our diaspora in London and with London audiences and London artists.”
Under its former name, the Tricycle Theatre, the Kiln has been at the centre of cultural life in the north London district of Kilburn for decades. The Abbey’s executive director Mark O’Brien said Kilburn’s long history as home to Irish immigrants made the Kiln a perfect match and brought a particular dimension to the co-production.
“Back in the 50s, Ireland kind of had a great shame attached to our relationship with areas like this. But projects like this show confidence that actually we can exist as Irish people in partnerships with the UK and those partnerships can grow and flourish rather than being something that has to be hidden away,” he said.
Girl on the Altar is at the Kiln Theatre, London kilntheatre.com until June 25th