‘The story of Iphigenia raises a lot of pertinent questions for today’

Lorna Shaughnessy on her poetic drama The Sacrificial Wind

ONE OF the must-see events at next week’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature is Lorna Shaughnessy’s powerful poetic drama The Sacrificial Wind which explores the characters around Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis.

Iphigenia was the daughter of Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War. At the behest of the goddess Artemis, Iphigenia was offered up as a human sacrifice to secure the becalmed Greek fleet a fair wind as they set sail for Troy from Aulis.

The Sacrificial Wind gives a vividly-realised panoply of voices from the story including Iphigenia, Agamemnon, Achilles, the priest Calchas, Iphigenia’s mother Clytemnestra, and sisters Electra and Chrysothemis, a nameless Greek soldier, and playwright Euripides.

“The story of Iphigenia raises a lot of pertinent questions for today,” Shaughnessy tells me. “It happens before the heroic phase of the Trojan War and it’s not heroic. It’s the sacrifice of an innocent girl in the pursuit of military glory. Artemis is invoked to justify the sacrifice just as we have our own modern pretexts to justify war like weapons of mass destruction. It raises questions about ‘collateral damage’, the wartime loss of civilian life - often women and children - and Iphigenia represents that category of victim. She is not quite an adult and is powerless despite being a princess. It’s about the betrayal of trust, in this case that of a father and daughter but it could be of a leader and his people.”

Shaughnessy was born in Belfast and lectures in Hispanic Studies in NUIG and has published three poetry collections with Salmon. The Sacrificial Wind arose from a sequence of poems in one of her poetry collections: “I wrote a series of eight monologues just focusing on the events in Aulis and showing different perspectives on what happened. At the launch of the book I read a couple of those monologues and Max Hafler was there and he got the book. About a month later he asked me would I consider writing more with a view toward a stage performance, so that’s where it started.”

Hafler directs Sacrificial Wind and the cast is Catherine Denning, Michael Irwin and Orla Tubridy. Shaughnessy describes how they went about bringing the material to the stage.

“It was a joy for me being involved in the process especially as so much of my work is me alone at my desk," she says. "I loved collaborating with such a dynamic director and three fabulous actors. There was a pre-rehearsal period of a couple of months where I was sending Max drafts of the extra monologues. We also met a few times to discuss a possible framework and we decided Euripides would provide that through the play opening and closing with him describing the struggle of writing a play like this. Euripides is one of the most interesting of all the tragic poets because he is so ambiguous in his attitude to the gods. Many of his characters are slippery, they change their minds a lot about things.

“We knew we would have a chorus to comment on the narrative and help the audience along a bit. The other characters give their own perspective while the chorus provides a bigger picture. The first half builds up to the sacrifice while the second half focuses on the family left behind. When we performed it last November in NUIG that was the emotional high-point of the piece. I was delighted with that because I had wanted the collateral damage to be the main impact rather than the drama of the sacrifice. The production also benefited from terrific lighting by Brian Rabbitte and soundscapes by Aranos which add a huge amount of atmosphere.”

Hafler and his cast combine movement, rhythm, masks, words and music in bringing Sacrificial Wind compellingly to the stage “What’s interesting about working with a set of poems, as opposed to a play, is that the structure is more subtle like music and we have to understand that,” Hafler notes. “Each poem is like an aria, changing the energy and movement of the piece suddenly for two or three minutes before a new character twists the story, often violently, in another direction.”

“It’s not a play, it’s a series of long poems but Max’s vision and the work of the actors turned it into a piece of theatre,” Shaugnessy states. “There is a lot of ensemble movement; each of the three actors play at least three different characters as well as doing the chorus and they are all onstage the whole time. They and Max all did amazing work on the production.”

The Sacrificial Wind runs at the Town Hall studio at 8pm from from Tuesday April 25 to Friday 28t. Tickets are €10/8 via 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie A post-performance discussion will take place after Thursday’s show.

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