It’s not by chance that Rattigan has fastened on the play Agamemnon of c. 470 BC by Aeschylus referred to in his title. Its eponymous hero returns home to Greece after his labours in the 7-year siege of Troy, only to be murdered in their bed chamber by his wife Clytemnestra who has taken a lover. The parallels with this play are evident. I feel Rattigan is making a claim for his play to aspire to the heights of classical tragedy as opposed to mere melodrama, ie that the main character can plausibly lay claim to an element of nobility so that his fall should be a deep one and also, importantly, inspire pity in his audience. The realisation of this claim must of course depend on director and cast as well as on the playwright.
Anna Steele’s production (65 mins without an interval) locates her characters in Crocker-Harris’ sparsely furnished study/living room – it could have been more elaborate and convincing given the Oxford college resources just at hand. There was evidence of first night tension in the, at times, faltering diction of the actors allied to uncertain movement and a generally static air. There were also small jarring things – Aeschylus mispronounced, Millie’s costume to my eye not quite of the period, the headmaster’s hair too long, Taplow’s tie undone – suggesting a slight lack of attention to detail.
Alex Blakes is Crocker-Harris, feared by the boys and despised by his wife. His monotone serves him well for the most part, and then in his exchanges with his youthful successor manages poignantly to excavate his battered soul, peeling back the layers of iciness like a chef with a Spanish onion on a chopping board. His moment of shock when Hunter jokingly discloses his nickname “the Himmler of the Lower Fifth”, a devastating moment, falls a little flat, however, as it is taken too quickly.
Ellie Page gives us a selfish, scheming Millie, and though she tries hard to convey a painful mix of superciliousness and desperation, her tendency to rush her lines means that the pathos underlying the haughtiness is partly lost. Aleks Cvetkovic is a jovial Hunter, while Ollie Forrest as the smarmy headmaster and Edward Richards as Taplow, the pupil whose gift precipitates the crisis, seemed both somewhat ill at ease.
A decent stab at this simmering little play, then, that should improve as the run goes on.
Although the producer kindly provided me with a cast list, the wider audience enjoyed no such benefit. Why student companies are unable to provide a single-sheet cast list/basic programme is beyond my understanding.