Using the bright lamp of Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis, playwright Tom Holloway shines a surreal but terrifying light – a kind of antipodean deinois, that beautiful Ancient Greek word meaning strange, wondrous and shocking all at once – on the contemporary problem of sexualising pre-teen girls. Directed by Patrick McCarthy of Mutation Theatre, this production elevates the issue to the level of moral apocalypse, stranding the play's few recognisable characters in a fire-blasted world where the prevailing logic is one of cruelty and sacrifice.
The scene is conjured for us by a chorus of two (Nick Pelomis and James Tresise). In a self-conscious, literary way, choosing their words with care, congratulating one another on fine turns of phrase and suggestive images, they describe for Agamemnon (Brendan Barnett), the moment of his daughter's birth. Agamemnon is traditionally the king of the Ancient Greeks, but here he is an Australian fireman, a hero in his community. In the chorus's skewed telling, however, there's also something intolerable about him, as though he were stalked by a nameless, obliterating guilt.
Few of Holloway's other characters scan against Euripides' cast. Sarah Ogden plays the fireman's wife, uncomfortable with her husband's relationship with their daughter, but unwilling to speak her fears aloud. Matt Epps plays a country cop coasting through a landscape of slaughter and insanity, looking for reasons in an unreasonable world.
The stage is centred around a blackened tree, and the walls are hung with soot-smutched white sheets. Portentous symbols, indeed. Lisa Mibus's lighting has a soft, ominous quality. There is much that is uncertain – about Agamemnon's true feelings for his daughter, about the causes of the early sexualisation of girls, whether nature or nurture, and about the kind of tale we're being told.
The scenes don't run together in a linear way, but we learn that there are bushfires threatening, closing in on the unnamed rural town at the same time as perversion is closing in on the mind of our Australian Agamemnon.
Euripides has the king sacrifice his daughter to the gods, the price of safe passage to Troy. The moment before her throat is cut, however, Iphigenia's body is swapped by Athena with that of a baby faun. Holloway repeats this exchange but applies it from the beginning, so that Iphigenia, the daughter, is entirely erased, dehumanised, reduced to a cuddly, delicious animal.
Making this curious script work is a tall order. It feels at once an abbreviated sketch and a frantic opera. McCarthy handles the mind-bending elements of the text well, but especially in the more naturalistic scenes he aims at an emotional heat the text, one of Holloway's relatively early works, can't sustain.
In the final moment, just as the lights go down, Agamemnon is handed what looks like a dead lamb, which is odd because they've been talking about dead fauns pretty much non-stop, not lambs. Rather than Aulis, this recalls Mount Moriah and the binding of Isaac, where at the last moment before Abraham's sacrifice, God swapped the body of Isaac for that of a ram.
I think this apparently unconscious confusion of theatrical Hebraism with Hellenism explains the chief problem here: the discipline has too much blaring self-flagellation, too much Judeo-Christian earnestness. For Holloway's admittedly flawed script to work, I think a production with more wit and unimpeded play, more satire, more Euripidean wickedness and more light is needed.