Iphigenuous: Stories Like These & Griffin Independent’s Minus One Sister

Off the top of my head, this is the fifth retelling of the myth of Orestes (and/or Elektra; they were siblings after all) that I have seen in the past couple of years. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, except that I am still confused as to the finer points of what actually happens in the myth, traditionally-speaking. Some of the retellings, like Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired chose to set their action decades after the events, while others, like Elektra/Orestes earlier this year thrust us right into the thick of it.
Winner of the 2013 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award, Anna Barnes’ Minus One Sister is based off of Sophocles’ version of the story, and unfolds in a fractured whirlwind of naturalistic dialogue scenes and chorus scenes. The story of a family – three sisters, their younger brother, and their parents – as much as the unspeakable crimes the parents commit, and the siblings’ need for retribution, Minus One Sister is a furious and fast-paced play, but I wonder if its swirl of words actually detracts from telling its stories.

Directed by Luke Rogers, the production is strong and clear, and makes sense of Barnes’ script which, apart from the naturalistic scenes, is entirely comprised of unallocated lines. Rogers navigates the mythic and the mundane day-to-day reality of the play with care and skill, although the text hampers this at times, constantly describing multiple people as ‘he’ or ‘she’, ‘him’ or ‘her’, often within the same scene, so we’re never quite sure who exactly it is they are talking about. Similarly in the chorus scenes, where lines overlap, and we grow to realise that the four actors are speaking out of character rather than as the four siblings. And while Rogers does his best to make sense of the mythic story at the heart of the play, a familiarity with the myth of Orestes, Elektra, Iphigenia and the rest of the Oresteia is almost a pre-requisite. Having said that, there is a hypnotic rhythm to Barnes’ play, like a back and forth tennis match, like a Philip Glass piece crossed with a script by Tom Holloway.
Rogers’ cast are all strong, and carry the play with conviction and honesty. Kate Cheel’s ‘wild sister’ Elektra with her arched eyebrows and steely resolve; Contessa Treffone’s ‘smart sister’ Chrysothemis with her concern for her siblings; Lucy Heffernan’s long-suffering ‘pretty sister’ Iphigenia who is present-but-not-present, the minus-one-sister; and Liam Nunan’s ‘baby CEO’ Orestes, sent to a European boarding school at six years old, only learning of his family’s recent past during a school assignment. Georgia Hopkins’ set – a once-opulent neo-baroque mansion – makes the tiny Griffin stage seem larger than normal, and Sian James-Holland’s lighting clearly shifts between the different scenes and modes of storytelling, creating clarity and colour where it might otherwise not be. Nate Edmondson’s score and sound design seems to rely upon a series of ominous drones and reverberating metallic clangs, but it also adds to the pervasive sense of unease and dread which hangs over these characters’ heads.

Despite the strengths of this production, it still feels slightly too long – the beginning dwells upon its set-up for longer than it perhaps needs to, and the middle is weighted with obfuscation and indecision as we to-and-fro from the rehab clinic to chorus scenes to Orestes in Europe, and only really achieves that thrilling Greek-tragedy style once Orestes returns and plans to set things right with Elektra’s help. Perhaps if it was a bit tighter, its storytelling a little clearer as to what this family’s story is, the play’s fractured chronology would make more sense, would become clearer.

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