'The Greeks gave us the first great murder scene in Western literature'

David Walmsley as Agamemnon and Eileen Walsh as Clytemnestra in rehearsal for Girl On An Altar by Marina Carr at the Kiln

David Walmsley as Agamemnon and Eileen Walsh as Clytemnestra in rehearsal for Girl On An Altar by Marina Carr at the Kiln Theatre - Credit: Peter Searle

The Greek myth of Clytemnestra, whose husband Agamemnon ritually sacrifices their daughter so he will succeed in war, is retold by Irish playwright Marina Carr at Kiln Theatre, Kilburn. A decade on from his unforgivable act, Agamemnon returns triumphant from Troy to face his seething, grieving wife. Here Carr answers questions about Girl On An Altar.

Q: What is it about Greek tragedy that keeps playwrights and audiences coming back?

A: We keep returning to the Greeks because they were the first in the west to lay down a working blueprint of what it is to be human. They stretch our understanding and incorporate the outer reaches of our species' existence on this earth. The heady mix of the divine in conversation with the temporal, Gods and mortals. The myths and tragedies deal with the big questions; what are we doing here? Are we creatures of destiny? Are our lives minutely and carefully planned for us on high or are we just creatures of chance floating in a chaotic universe without rhyme or reason? The nature of Good, of Evil, of Truth, of Beauty, of the nature of the soul, of nemesis, of retribution, earthly and unearthly. I think what really fascinates us is the conversation around the divine and where we posit ourselves in the equation.

Members of the cast of Girl On An Altar by Marina Carr at the Kiln Theatre (to be performed in June

David Walmsley and Eileen Walsh in rehearsal for Girl On An Altar by Marina Carr at the Kiln Theatre - Credit: Peter Searle

Q: What was it in Clytemnestra's story that you were interested in exploring?

A: She is the woman who orchestrates the first great murder scene in western literature. It hasn't been bettered and is much copied. A Lydian two bladed axe, a net, a silver bath, a daughter-slaying husband. Clytemnestra is an intriguing character who has witnessed the sacrifice of her daughter on an altar for the wind to change. She seethes and grieves during her husband's long absence in Troy and when he returns exacts her terrible revenge. At its heart 'Girl on an Altar' is a play about a marriage, a big marriage and a successful one until Agamemnon does the unspeakable. What do you do when the man you love commits an atrocity? This is Clytemnestra's dilemma and Agamemnon's too. The struggle in them both for forgiveness, for redemption, vying with the rage and the desire to wound, torture and finally kill.

Q: Are there contemporary resonances in your play?

A: Men and women and what they are capable of doing to each other is eternal and everything the Greeks have written resonates with us now.

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Q: How have you adapted the story?

A: It's less an adaptation and more a riff on the first part of Aeschylus' Oresteia. I wanted to explore how trauma and atrocity function within a marriage and if it is possible to redeem and be redeemed after the spilling of one's own blood. I also wanted to explore the nature of revenge, its difficulty and its ferocity. Clytemnestra is infamous as a husband slayer, but I think it is not easy for her to exact that revenge. The other theme that interests me is that of trauma. Trauma that is inherited, passed down in our hard wiring from generation to generation much like in the house of Atreus. And then there is the trauma of things that happen to us that cross the bounds of what we deem fair and acceptable.

Q: And how are you staging it?

A: Annabelle Comyn's direction captures the timeless nature of these characters and the sterling cast portray the 'then' and 'now' and 'always' quality of the play. Tom Piper has designed a magnificent set of marble and mirrors and burnt wood that shimmers and floats in the Kiln space and Philip Stewart’s soundscape is both contemporary and elegiac.

Members of the cast of Girl On An Altar by Marina Carr at the Kiln Theatre (to be performed in June

Girl On An Altar by Marina Carr at the Kiln Theatre - Credit: Peter Searle

Girl on an Altar runs at Kiln Theatre from May 24 until June 25. https://kilntheatre.com/whats-on/girl-on-an-altar/