Excerpt: ‘Violence and Our Country’s Good’, by Jane Howard


Photo by United Nations Photo. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

“Say it isn’t true,” Agamemnon tries to bargain in Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Oresteia.

“Let’s say I did this, we went ahead, my daughter dies by my hand alone, the child is the price, but then the fair winds just do not blow. Silence. And it turns out we read it wrong, that there was some kind of flaw in the plan—and we are still at war.”

Two-and-a-half thousand years ago in Greece, Aeschylus wrote four plays that we now know as the Oresteia. They’re stories of brutality and revenge: of nations at war, of families at war. They’re stories of rulings from the gods; of self-proclaimed power; of the beginnings of courts and justice systems. And in Aeschylus’s first play (now lost), and in Icke’s first act (now on stage in London), Agamemnon has been told the only way his army can win the war is for him to kill his own daughter.

The child is the price.

It is a brutal and horrific bargaining process. What is the price of war and suffering? What is the worth of one child when you consider the hundreds upon hundreds who will die at war: on battlefields, at home? But then, what is the cost of your own child—how can you ever unsee your connection to them: how can you ever convince yourself their life is worth the reward?

By your own hand. The child is the price.

When the moment comes, it’s quiet and delicate. Iphigenia (9-year-old Dixie Egerickx) is small, fragile in the arms of Agamemnon (Aungus Wright). Her hair cascades down her back, making her seem smaller than she truly is. Icke offers no pretense: this is a child. This is the face of the price of war. This young girl who you just saw play with her toy bunny, who you just heard sing ‘God Only Knows’: this child is the price.

Wright’s hands shake as he gifts the child a sequence of three white paper cups. He strokes her hair as she goes quiet. After an impossibly long silence, Iphigenia stirs, but only for a moment. Icke forces us to sit and watch every painful moment of Agamemnon’s choice: a decree from the gods. A task that seems impossible and yet, as Icke shows us, the only choice Agamemnon could have made.

There is immense violence in Icke’s silence.

Six days before I see Oresteia, every newspaper in London carries the same image on its front page. A boy, three years old, face down on a beach. Drowned as his parents tried to take him from war-torn Syria to safety in Europe. The time I have been in the UK, this flight of refugees has been steadily growing, overwhelming train stations and governments in Europe. To date, England—and Australia—have continued to ignore the problem. It’s for Europe to deal with.

But with this boy, the body of Aylan Kurdi, the tide begins to shift. British and Australian governments pledge to do more, to take in more refugees.

Was this child the price?

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #28: The Art Issue. Get your copy here.

Jane Howard is a freelance performing arts critic and journalist who works throughout Australia and in the UK.