Thursday, 9 October 2014

Theatre review: Electra

The current in-the-round configuration at the Old Vic is a suitably exposed setting for a good, but stark production of Sophocles' Electra. Perennially one of the most popular Greek Tragedies, it takes place near the end of the saga of the House of Atreus, so by the time we join the story it comes with a lot of baggage, well into a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge. Before the Trojan War, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to secure the Greek army's fortunes. Never forgiving him for it, his wife Clytemnestra (Diana Quick) waited for his return then murdered him, with help from her lover Aegisthus (Tyrone Huggins.) Now they rule together, to the continuing dismay of her eldest daughter Electra. Driven mad by grief, she haunts the palace making threats; forbidden to leave or marry because of her continuing loyalty to her dead father, she vows revenge when her brother Orestes is old enough to return and carry it out.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Electra as more outright insane than I've seen before, allowing for a performance that mines extraordinary depths of grief. Orestes' (Jack Lowden) plan involves spreading false rumours of his own death, and Scott Thomas reveals the pain in losing not just her brother but the hope of fulfilling her single-minded purpose in life.

The extent of Electra's descent into madness casts a new light on her sister: Usually coming across somewhat cold-blooded and deserving of Electra's scorn, the pragmatism of Liz White's Chrisothemis here seems more of an understandable defence mechanism - she's seen the results of never letting go of grief and a grudge.

The fact that Chrisothemis is illuminated by Electra is telling of the whole production; it was Scott Thomas who desperately wanted to play the role, and she's more than able to carry the whole production. It does really feel, though, as if that's what she's been left to do, and Ian Rickson's production proves as stark as Mark Thompson's dusty, parched set. There's no doubting it's a powerful evening, and Electra does keep its heroine on stage for almost the entire duration; but I did wish a little more time had been spent on fleshing out the world around her.

Electra by Sophocles in a version by Frank McGuinness is booking until the 20th of December at the Old Vic.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

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