Warning: Intense scenes. Girl on an Altar is not for the faint of heart.

CREDIT: Peter Searle

Girl on an Altar, written by Marina Carr and directed by Annabelle Comyn, is a retelling of the Greek legend of Clytemnestra and her husband Agamemnon, king of Argos and Mycenae. As the myth goes, Agamemnon sacrifices their ten-year-old daughter Iphigenia for the sake of the war, then stays at war for ten years. In his absence, Clytemnestra takes Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus as her lover, and they both plot and succeed in killing Agamemnon when he returns.

While there are many depictions of their story, Clytemnestra is commonly represented as a vengeful, seductive, and cunning woman, which is what makes this retelling so intriguing. Carr has rewritten Clytemnestra as a distraught mother who is grieving over the death of her child and the loss of trust in her husband. She struggles with her inevitable love for Agamemnon but is unable to forget what he did to their daughter (and rightly so, as he never apologizes and firmly defends his decision). She is a victim of her husband’s toxic obsession with power and image. 

Girl on an Altar is performed in a narrative style, which was very useful in being able to see each character’s perspective and hear their internal thoughts. It was also helpful in describing the changing settings as the set was minimal, with only a bed and a couple of chairs. I won’t spoil it, but the narrative style was crucial and very cleverly used in the final climactic scene.

The performances of the cast were incredible, each one powerful in their own way. David Walmsley’s (Agamemnon) performance made me flinch at times with his character’s explosive behaviour. Cassandra, played by Nina Bowers, was, in my opinion, the true victim, as Agamemnon took her from Troy to live with him after murdering her entire family. The inclusion of her softly singing Maya Angelou’s poem ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is a brilliant modern allusion that conveys her captivity. Daon Broni (Aegisthus) and Jim Findely (Tyndareus, Clytemnestra’s father and king of Sparta) had less stage time as they are not prominent characters, but they were instrumental in giving the audience the entire story with their perspectives. 

Eileen Walsh was absolutely mesmerizing as Clytemnestra. She put every ounce of emotion she had into her performance. Clytemnestra’s servant Cilissa, played by Kate Stanley Brennan, was arguably the strongest character. Her loyalty to Clytemnestra and her children never wavered. Only once did she reference her personal losses, the life she was forced to sacrifice in order to take care of these privileged people, in the play’s most powerful line: “Your children? What about my children? Don’t talk to me about children.”

The more I reflect on this play, the more awed I am. While Girl on an Altar’s defining point is definitely Carr’s beautiful writing, I can see how it would be easy to lose focus at times with the ongoing narrative style. Be prepared to consciously pay attention; it is well-worth the effort. 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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CREDIT: Peter Searle

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