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  • Chris O'Rourke

Girl on an Altar

Aoibhéann McCann and Eileen Walsh in Girl on an Altar. Image by Pat Redmond


Writer of some of the most important Irish plays of her generation, Marina Carr has built much of her career piggybacking on the back of Greek tragedy. Reframing, reinterpreting, reimagining from a feminist perspective, the results range from the sublime to the less than memorable. Landing somewhere in between, Carr’s latest, Girl on an Altar, sets out to reimagine the tale of husband and wife, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Exploring how woman and children suffer trauma in the violent power plays between men. First performed in The Kiln Theatre, London, in May 2022, Girl on an Altar finally makes its Irish premiere at The Abbey.

David Walmsley in Girl on an Altar. Image by Pat Redmond

How can a married couple move on after betrayal and violence? Agamemnon, having sacrificed their ten year old daughter, Iphigenia, to remind his men he’s still top dog, returns from the Trojan war a decade later having secured victory along with a pregnant prophetess, Cassandra. Having watched him sacrifice their daughter to the Gods under a ruse of marrying her to Achilles, Clytemnestra oscillates between being devastatingly distraught and being none too happy about it. Hating Agamemnon’s swaggering face with every fibre of her being while still having the hots for her bit of rough, bad boy. Matters compounded by her affair with Agamemnon’s foppish cousin, Aegisthus, with whom she has a child, Leda. Tired of her emotionally flip flopping like a landed fish, Agamemnon casts her, and Leda, into the harem. Enraging Daddy Tyndareus and lover boy Aegisthus who set about seeking revenge. Culminating in a rushed ending drenched in blood that garners more chuckles than gasps. As do many of the plays dramatic moments.

Pattie Maguire, David Walmsley and Daon Born in Girl on an Altar. Image by Pat Redmond

In trying to square away the religious circle of Greek myth, Carr loses much in the process. Even its hugely impressive cast can’t make it cohesively believable, despite some sterling work. Yet its complex, contradictory main characters are, for the most part, powerfully rendered, even as the whole remains weaker than the sum of its occasionally brilliant parts. Carr’s laboured script owing as much to Mrs Dalloway as her Greek inspirations with its multi-narrative focus dispersing its energy. Shifting between monologues punctured by dialogues, the latter prove far more successful as monologues see story told more than story shown. Delivering commentary on events rather than events themselves. Events found in dialogue which are often scintillating. Mostly though, its monologues. Descriptive exposition and long winded reportage culminating in waning interest, unfolding towards a tragic end like a series of overlapping lectures. Even so, monologues can have their moments, for Carr can gut punch you with a killer line that takes your breath away.

Jim Findley in Girl on an Altar. Image by Pat Redmond

To say director Annabelle Comyn saves the day might be an overstatement, but not by much. Comyn, along with an invested cast and a crew showing technical genius, go for broke to bring it all home with a moderrn focus. Not that it all lands. If Tom Piper’s stunningly cavernous set, a marriage bed its centre piece, proves a stroke of liminal genius, his costumes anchor events far less successfully. Resembling a third rate, trope driven gangland drama, they look old hat and undermine Carr's larger thematic ambitions. Meanwhile, Philip Stewart’s compositions and sound design, with its folksy blues tunes, strain for effect. But back to Piper’s fantastic set, whose many moving parts are steeped in Will Duke’s subtle yet evocative projections and Amy Mae’s stunning, almost conversational light design with shadows so thick you could cut them. Creating a suffocating atmosphere whose texture does much of the heavy lifting. Comyn’s compositional arrangements a masterclass in flow, realising several moments of captivating beauty.

Girl on an Altar. Image by Pat Redmond

Under Comyn’s skilful gaze, its two central performances almost forgive everything. If Eileen Walsh’s Clytemnestra is unevenly complex, Walsh's powerhouse performance keeps you mesmerised. Matched by David Walmsley’s superlatively brilliant, lad’s lad Agamemnon, the villain you love to hate. Their chemistry compensating for what Carr’s script talks of but never convincingly delivers on; that raw, sexy energy that makes you almost believe any sin is possible between two people. Their passion, like Carr's script, lightened and diluted by humour and long winded introspection. A cast rounded out with credible performances by Daon Broni, (Aegisthus), Pattie Maguire (Cassandra), Jim Findley (Tyndareus) and a vastly underused Aoibhéann McCann (Cilissa). In fairness, secondary characters prove little more than devices or human props. Even so, McCann still finds those moments to remind you of what they might have been.

David Walmsley and Eileen Walsh in Girl on an Altar. Image by Pat Redmond

Lust, longing, loneliness, power, politics, masculinity 101; Carr has many points to cover. Yet efforts to ground them in this troubled relationship make for too many big asks. Neither the political nor the personal ever fully done justice. In the end, Girl on an Altar's relationship to the Greek original feels the way footnotes are to Hamlet; a pale interpretation of the real thing in which more gets lost than is ever found. Luckily Comyn, cast and crew elevate Carr’s third-rate tale in a production awash in five star values.

Girl on an Altar, by Marina Carr, an Abbey Theatre and Kiln Theatre co-production, runs at The Abbey until August 19.

For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre


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