Reason 8/50 to Go See A Play: Iphigenia at Aulis is a classic that remains of the moment – curious arts

When the logic of war and terror take over, how easily do we sacrifice all we hold dear?

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the University of Alberta’s Department of Drama, the Curious Arts blog is sharing 50 Reasons to Go See A Play throughout the 2015-16 season.  

This is reason eight in the series, a Q & A interview by Brenley Charkow with director David Kennedy, who says although Euripides wrote Iphigenia at Aulis sometime around 406 BCE, it remains as immediate as this week’s headlines. The Studio Theatre production of Iphigenia at Aulisopens November 26 and plays until December 5 at the Timms Centre for the Arts.


Brenley: Can you summarize what Iphigenia at Aulis is about?

David:Iphigenia in Aulis concerns the sacrifices that we as a society, or any civilization, undertake in order to wage war, the true costs of war despite what we tell ourselves about patriotism and necessity and everything else – what it actually costs. That’s making no judgments about the necessity or the justness of any war. Sometimes conflict is necessary, but it always exacts a deep cost.

Brenley: Out of the entire Greek canon, why this play?

David: I always had a fondness for the play, but it was Guido Tondino, who’s designing this production, that suggested we produce it. He had seen Don Taylor’s translation in Katie Mitchell’s production at the National Theatre maybe ten years ago. This is a play about young people, and as most wars are fought by young people, we thought that it would be a great project for these student actors.

Brenley: What was your first thought when you picked it up?

David: My first response re-reading it was that I still admired the play, but I had no idea what my way in would be. Then at some point last fall, the US Congress released this long report on their investigation into the years of the Bush administration, the torture program, and the ways deep core American values had been thrown overboard in the pursuit of the “War on Terror,” and suddenly this question of sacrifice had an immediacy for me. This play is entirely of the moment.

Brenley: Is this production set in contemporary time?

David: Yes. That lead to a long series of conversations with Dana [Tanner-Kennedy] who is one of the dramaturgs on the production. I began reading a book called Guantanamo Diary that had just been published, which is essentially the redacted diary of this guy who’s been detained in Guantanamo.

Then I saw an  exhibition of Israeli video artists at the Art Gallery of Alberta, one of whom was Omer Fast. He had a work called Five Thousand Feet is the Best. It was all about a drone pilot.

What was striking about it was that it took actual transcripts from an interview of a pilot going on missions and superimposed his text overtop of scenes of Las Vegas suburbia, not far from where some of these drone pilots actually do their work.

This idea of a world-overseas being superimposed onto our world became one of the things I talked about with designer Guido Tondino.

Where we landed with our Iphigenia is in a waiting room of a contemporary military installation somewhere in the world. It’s a nowhere space and a waiting space defined by transition. I wanted the sense of being stuck.


Brenley: Were there other sources of inspiration?

David: I had googled images for Bagram air force base, and the first image that popped up was a coin operated laundry room that looked like it could have been in a basement of a condo in Edmonton. And I thought, “that’s so crazy, it looks like here.” Of course you realize that’s what they’re trying to do, trying to export for these soldiers over there the general comforts of home: Taco Bells and Burger Kings.

Brenley: Tim Hortons…

David: Yeah. And so we wanted a space that would look like a space that you would see over here, and yet, it’s somewhere else.

Brenley: You mentioned Drone warfare… How does that tie into this production?

David: There’s this dream with drones that war will be surgical, clean, precise, and it won’t exact a toll on our combatants. But the reality is that drone pilots suffer PTSD in high numbers. There’s a cognitive dissonance that goes along with waging war for eight hours a day and then getting into your car and driving home. Watching television. Picking up your kid from soccer practice. Eight hours a day they’re fighting a war in the Middle East and then the rest of their life is in this weird American suburban space. So much of drone warfare is about sitting around waiting for a command to strike. There’s a sense of waiting.

I thought the idea of making Achilles a drone pilot would be fascinating because he is the exemplary figure in the play of what a warrior should be – noble, heroic. It raises the question of what does it mean to be a warrior when everything is so distant?

Brenley: How does the Chorus function in this world?

David: I think the choral text would have been jarring to Euripides’ audience. It would have delivered a certain aesthetic shock, because the Chorus are mutable, almost like fractured personalities. But it wouldn’t necessarily deliver the same aesthetic shock to a contemporary audience. The Chorus are supposed to be the bridge between the stage and spectator, and in order for the Chorus to be us, their function had to be radically re-imagined. I asked myself, what is the modern town square? The internet. So we trawled the internet for looking for different kinds of inspiration for how to think about the Chorus. The internet is this great aggregator of what the world is thinking at any given moment.


Brenley: Will audiences today relate to the ultimate sacrifice?

David: In general, in Canada and the United States, we have become insulated from the culture of the military. It’s possible to go through life not knowing anybody who serves, not knowing anyone in a combat zone. For most of us, it’s an abstraction you read about in a newspaper, as opposed to prior wars in our history, the obvious example being WWII, where everybody would have known somebody in the conflict. So in some sense, I feel like I have to make a production for people who are insulated from these things, as I am.

Brenley: Will people get the ‘weight’ of what that is?

David: I hope so. But in some sense the play isn’t only about the ultimate sacrifice. It asks what are the conditions under which people make such choices? That’s what I think Euripides is interested in. He’s writing for a society that was immersed in war, and he wants us to pick apart the various rationales and look at them critically.

Brenley: What do you hope audiences will take away from this?

David: I hope it’s provocative and that they think about what they’ve seen. I hope maybe they even argue about what they’ve seen, as well.

Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title:Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides. Translation by Don Taylor.
Dates: Nov. 26 – Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Matinee Thursday, Dec. 3  at 12:30 p.m.
$5 preview performance on Wednesday, Nov. 25 at 7:30 p.m.
No show on Sunday, Nov. 29
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior, available online now at TIX on the Square and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.

U of A Studio Theatre will be marking World Aids Day 2015 (December 1, 2015) throughout the production run of Iphigenia at Aulis. Please feel free to take a red ribbon when you pick up your playbill. Donations gratefully accepted but not required. Donations of $20 or more will be receipted by HIV Edmonton.

Donations to the Food Bank also accepted. Bring a non-perishable food item or personal hygiene supplies to the Timms lobby.

Photos by Ed Ellis. Set and video projection design by Guido Tondino. Costume design by Ksenia Broda-Milian. Lighting design by Robert Shannon. Sound design by Misha Hlebnicov.

For full cast, creative and production team details see:

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