REVIEW: Electra, Old Vic Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Electra at the Old Vic with Kristen Scott Thomas
Photo: Johan Persson

The Old Vic
17 October 2014
5 Stars

You are on an arid hilltop. You can imagine that, from the vantage point you can see, there is an excellent view of the surrounding hills. The ground is dry, sandy, arid, and a sense of heat and restless decay is embedded, deeply, there; only a single tap rises from the ground, the sole nod towards life and the purity of refreshment. A gnarled, probably dead, tree rises forebodingly from the wasteland; thick, portentous, watchful. Almost an obelisk; perhaps, if a light were hung from it, a lighthouse, with just a trace, or perhaps the remnants, of life as a ghostly shroud. And slightly back from the tree, a huge set of imposing doors, perhaps of a tomb or castle or watch-tower. An imposing edifice, full of dark, violent and terrifying promise. Not a place to be trapped.

Such is the powerfully evocative set Mark Thompson has provided for Ian Rickson’s production of Electra, Sophocles’ famous tragedy, now playing at The Old Vic. Irish playwright Frank McGuinness has provided the translation here and something of the heritage of Irish drama is somehow infused into the sense of the piece and the playing. This version of Electra finds time for grim humour, occasionally startlingly funny. There is also the hint of the Irish lad in Orestes, particularly in the scene where he tricks Electra into believing that he has brought her the ashes of her much adored, much missed (since violent separation), brother.

The language is muscular, raw and vivid; tense with history and flourishing with modern sensibilities. Thompson’s design (set and fusion modern/period costumes) reflects that duality. Everything is both now and then, here and there, immediate and remembered. It’s a seamless, intelligent and arresting combination of text and design augmenting a marvellous, richly detailed production.

To understand Electra, her history is crucial. It all starts with Helen of Troy.

Menelaus marries her and his brother, Agamennon, marries her sister, Clytemnestra; Electra is one of their four children. The Trojan War takes Agamennon away from home for a decade or so and, while there, he seeks favour with the gods by having Electra’s sister, Iphigenia, sacrificed to the Goddess Artemis. That action has many consequences.

One is that Clytemnestra has an affair with the ambitious Aegisthus; another is that the only male heir to Agamennon, Orestes, is exiled for his own safety. Electra has lost two adored siblings and her mother ices her insanity cake by slaughtering Agamennon on his return from battle (he has brought with him the beautiful Cassandra as his prize) and allies herself with Aegisthus. As the years pass, Electra and her sister, Chrysothemis, live uneasily in the shadow of the death of their father, the adulteress arrogance of their mother and, in Electra’s case, the achingly slow dawning of the day when Orestes will return to avenge his father’s murder.

Sophocles’s play is all about the effect her history and her life has had on Electra. As Frank McGuiness sees it: “Electra is the female Hamlet, calling a whole life into question, a woman utterly exposed by her own terror”. Certainly, by the end of the play, Electra has achieved her much wished for revenge – but at what cost? Does she triumph or merely leap into a different abyss of uncertainty and intense all-pervading misery and fear?

Defined by her adoration of her flawed father and absent brother, Electra has spent her life trapped, with her surviving sister, in the tomb that is her mother’s house. Though despising her, Electra relies upon Clytemnestra for survival. This duality is key to understanding the tormented conflicts which drive Electra – she wants her father revenged, but she needs her mother to survive. In her mind, the return of Orestes is her only hope – he can avenge their father’s death and then look after her.

But, here, it is not as simple as that. This Orestes is a more complicated beast. He has come to exact revenge, to murder his mother and Aegisthus because Apollo has commanded it, not because his sister has yearned for him to do it. He plays with Electra when he arrives, pretending to be the bearer of Orestes’ ashes rather than Orestes himself. And when he slays his mother, the cold determination he displays does not bode well for his anticipated role (in Electra’s eyes) as “Carer brother”. Electra has to face the possibility that her life fuelled by thoughts of revenge may have blinded her to the realities of a life where that revenge has occurred.

Could she be more trapped, more terrified, more savagely destitute with Orestes than she was with Clytemnestra? The final image of this production, that of Electra throwing herself onto the shrouded, bloodied corpse of her mother and hugging it, suggests that possibility. It is chilling. And a potent reminder that revenge might seem a good idea but never is. (A notion that has special relevance in a world currently obsessed with revenge killings of all shapes, sizes and motivations)

Like some sort of starving feral cat, eyes blazing, claws exposed, Kristin Scott Thomas stalks over the sandy wasteland, scrabbling in it, sifting it, rolling in it – the impression is that this is the spot where Agamennon died and she is communing with whatever trace of him, his blood, his essence might still be there. It’s an explosive performance of raw, passionate and ulcerative pain; focussed and riveting in absolutely every respect.

The howls of indignant fury and stricken, savage disappointment that wrack her every cell when she thinks Orestes is dead were consummately done – a portrait of despair and anguish and rage, detailed and dynamic.

The venomous exchange with Diana Quick’s Clytemnestra pulsates with years of spoken and unspoken rage, incomprehension and dismissive hostility – on both sides. Quick matches Scott Thomas’ quicksilver approach and delivers a sure line in assured matriarchy. She is compelling in every way.

Jack Lowden shows yet again his splendour as an actor. Orestes is not given much to say or do, and often is thrown away, but not in Lowden’s hands. Here, Orestes is fully formed, a vigorous, manly warrior who does not know his sister, mistrusts her, toys with her and then does what he wants. There is much admirable detail in Lowden’s performance – especially the way he shows Orestes getting almost sexually excited both by the prospect of the murder of his mother and then, once her blood soaks his hands, the aftermath. This is in stark contrast to his much colder, dispassionate dispatch of Aegisthus.

As Scott Thomas prowls and scowls and scratches like a wild feline spirit, so Lowden adopts other feline attributes – watchfulness, constant readiness to pounce and, when the kill is near, an itchy impatience to get at the task, charged by the electricity that comes from a full appreciation that it might go wrong, the victim might get away.

In their scenes together, Scott Thomas and Lowden are really quite extraordinary. They look nothing alike, but the physicality they manage to share, together with a sense of shared, family, sensuous history is arresting. They are finely tuned indeed.

As Chrysothemis, Liz White has a very hard task. She occupies the space left by the booming shadows of Electra and Clytemnestra as they face the sun, and it is a very small space indeed. She has been the sister who has accepted all that has befallen her family, the quiet, timid and complacent one; the one who has tried to get mother and daughter to, if not make peace, co-exist. She has failed, of course, but that makes her part here that much more difficult. White conveys all of this with a haunted, shy precision that provides a good counterpoint to Electra’s excesses.

Peter Wight is excellent as Orestes’ servant, his rich and compelling voice getting proceedings off to a clear and attention holding start. His exudes sincerity and his sense of commitment to Orestes’ cause is crystal clear. And each of the three women who comprised the Chorus, Julia Dearden, Golda Rosheuvel and Thalissa Teixeira, provided an eloquent, somber and watchful presence as the horror unfolded.

Only Tyrone Huggins is not up to the task set him – his Aegistgus was rich in vocal effect but lacking in substance in every other way. Against the complex and skilled acting around him, he was a little absurd.

But he does not make much of a dent in the overall effectiveness of Rickson’s vision for this adaptation of Sophocles, which is sure, deliberate and carefully calculated. Brimming with energy, visceral, frightening rage and the sense of complete horror that only family tragedies can provide, this Electra is a tremendous achievement.

If the rest of Kevin Spacey’s final season at The Old Vic is as remarkable as this Electra, it will be a crowning achievement.

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