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Theatre Reviews Review: Wedding at Aulis at Soulpepper is an imitation of Greek tragedy

Stuart Hughes and Frank Cox-O'Connell in Wedding at Aulis by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Cylla von Tiedemann/other

  • Title: Wedding at Aulis
  • Written by: Sina Gilani
  • Director: Alan Dilworth
  • Actors: Stuart Hughes, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Raquel Duffy,
  • Company: Soulpepper Theatre Company
  • Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to April 14, 2019

rating

Nancy Palk, Raquel Duffy and Sebastien Heins. The story playwright Sina Gilani follows fairly faithfully is a prequel, in a way, to that ultimate domestic drama, the Oresteia – where a son kills a mother who orchestrated the death of a father who killed a daughter.

Cylla von Tiedemann/other

A new version of an old play usually has one of two purposes: to bring us closer to the original, or bring the original closer to us.

Wedding at Aulis, playwright Sina Gilani’s take on Euripides’s tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis now premiering at Soulpepper, doesn’t accomplish either of these tasks. It feels like an imitation of a play, with any meaning lost between then and now.

The story Gilani follows fairly faithfully is a prequel, in a way, to that ultimate domestic drama, the Oresteia – where a son kills a mother who orchestrated the death of a father who killed a daughter.

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We’re on the brink of the Trojan War, but the Greek fleet, set to sail to Troy to bring Helen back to her husband Menelaus, is stuck in Aulis with no wind.

A seer believes this is the goddess Artemis’s doing – and that the only way to get the winds blowing again is for Agamemnon (Stuart Hughes) to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia (Alice Snaden).

And so, Agamemnon has sent for his family under the auspices that his daughter is to marry the warrior Achilles (Sebastien Heins) - but, as the play begins, he’s had second thoughts and has sent another message to stop them from coming.

Menelaus (Frank Cox-O’Connell), Agamemnon’s brother, intercepts that message and the two men argue over the need for this sacrifice – and the personal and political reasons for the mission to Troy. “Helen chose you, and then she chose another,” Agamemnon says. “Upon our triumphant return from Troy am I then to build a wall surrounding all borders of Greece, to keep the barbarians out, and your wife in?”

This is Gilani’s clearest nod to now - and, if it is a bit of a strange argument for Agamemnon to make in a time when walls were definitely in, the debate between these brothers is nevertheless the liveliest part of Wedding in Aulis; Cox-O’Connell brings fire to the stage that Hughes tries to cool with his tears.

After the two men have argued each other out of their original positions, however, we’re back on course toward the inevitable ending, made even more inevitable here, because of Gilani’s addition of a framing device involving three Fates (played by Alana Bridgewater, Leah Cherniak and a wry Sarah Wilson). The purpose of this eluded me: Aren’t Greek tragedies fatalistic enough already?

Director Alan Dilworth has staged Wedding in Aulis in Soulpepper’s Tank House theatre, more of a room than a theatre, and in the round, with just two rows of seats on each side.

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Derek Boyes and Stuart Hughes. We’re on the brink of the Trojan War, but the Greek fleet, set to sail to Troy to bring Helen back to her husband Menelaus, is stuck in Aulis with no wind.

Cylla von Tiedemann/other

But it’s ultimately hard to feel immersed in the stakes of the situation even after Clytemnestra (Raquel Duffy), Iphigenia and babe-in-arms Orestes arrive because of the strange, awkward writing – which has the characters all speaking in backwards sentences and scrambled syntax that are phony signifiers of ancientness. (“An honour it will be to die for those I serve!”, “Knows the king of this prediction?”)

This is truly puzzling for a “new version.” Why would Iphigenia, in an emotional moment, say something as convoluted as: “Mother, why in silence do you stain your eyes with tears still?”

It sounds like verse, but if there’s a particular form that Gilani’s going for, I couldn’t riddle it out.

It also sounds like a translation, but Gilani doesn’t know Greek and Soulpepper didn’t commission a literal translation for him to work from.

Wedding in Aulis, in the end, sounds like a text insufficiently new based on various extant English versions – with vocabulary and phrases from all over the place, dead words such as “begat” and “ravish” bumping up against more recent, but dated expressions such as “mind your manners.”

When Achilles stands up for Iphigenia, he says he was “almost lynched” by soldiers for doing so. Is there a reason Gilani has chosen this American word with a very specific meaning and given it to a character played by a black actor here?

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Michelle Tracey’s blandly unspecific set and costume design doesn’t help clarify anything this show is trying to say about the past or the present.

I liked the chorus when they sang (Brenna MacCrimmon is credited as music director), and I appreciated how the big cast did their best to layer intention and emotion under their lines.

The chorus in Wedding at Aulis.

Cylla von Tiedemann/other

But there’s endless room for leeway in writing a new version of a play by Euripides, not to mention in writing an entirely new play that questions or upends or talks back to the original.

Given Gilani just completed a stint as a playwright in the Soulpepper Academy, the fusty, fearful approach adopted here reflects more poorly on the guidance given there than on him. A revamp is on the way, and obviously needed.

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