'Electra': Theater Review

Electra, The Old Vic - P 2014
Johan Persson

Electra, The Old Vic - P 2014

This powerhouse rendition of Sophocles’ classic tragedy pivots around an intricate lead performance

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Sophocles’ vengeful heroine in her latest collaboration with director Ian Rickson

Further cementing a fruitful professional partnership after their successful collaborations on The Seagull, Betrayal and Old Times in London and New York, Kristin Scott Thomas and director Ian Rickson come up with the goods again for Electra, a powerhouse rendition of Sophocles’ classic tragedy.

Staged in the round at London's Old Vic using Frank McGuinness’ 1997 adaptation of the text, the production strikes a smart balance between antiquity and modernity. Sparse, period-suggestive but not literal design and eerie music (by rock star PJ Harvey) rub up against instantly accessible performances, stippled with surprisingly effective moments of humor. Thomas rightly earned vigorous applause on press night for her bravura, backbone display of prowess in the physically and emotionally demanding title role. Her name will undoubtedly lure the crowds in the months ahead, but the excellent supporting cast deserves equal praise for putting flesh on the story’s bones.

It’s not hard to see why this 2500-year-old portrait of familial strife continues to speak to so many generations. On one level, this story — of a woman consumed by hatred for her mother Clytemnestra and stepfather Aegisthus for having killed her father Agamemnon — is just another strand in a whole tapestry of mythic struggles and grudges involving knots of characters who show up in surviving plays by other Hellenic writers (such as EuripidesIphigenia in Tauris). In clumsy hands, the raw material can all seem impossibly distant, cold as two-millennia-old burnt offerings. But on a symbolic level, it’s as relevant and personal as yesterday’s fight with your in-laws or the cycles of revenge that fuel civil wars.

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In Rickson and his collaborators’ take on the material, Electra becomes less about dynastic politics and more a portrait of how grief deranges the mind. With her stark, staring eyes, sudden growls of fury, and flash-quick changes of mood, Thomas’ Electra strongly evokes a mental patient who is not being cared for by her community. Often walking on tiptoes in bare feet like a child on the autistic spectrum, this Electra is touchingly vulnerable, despite her murderous rhetoric, compulsively stuck on one all-consuming idea: revenge. She's a flapping, panicked little bird shrouded in a dress a few sizes too big for her.

Sometimes it feels like her despair is more habitual than truly felt; Electra herself is putting on a show whose dramatic run has gone on for quite a few years. When she’s misinformed that her brother Orestes (Jack Lowden) is dead, her operatic hysteria rings a little false. Some might read this as a flaw in Thomas’ acting, or a sign of press-night jitters. But on close scrutiny the effect looks deliberate, creating a matryoshka set of performances nested within a performance.

If that’s the strategy, it makes sense that the rest of the cast pitch their performances in a different, less volatile register. Lowden’s Orestes is steadfast and sweetly simple, a veritable Captain America untroubled by doubts about his mission. Likewise his servant, played by Peter Wight, who miraculously manages to make the potentially tedious fake description of Orestes’ death in a chariot race sound interesting. Diana Quick as Clytemnestra offers a regal, self-assured mother who’s sure she knows best. When she justifies the killing of Agamemnon as revenge for his sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia, there’s just enough outrage there to show that Electra is a chip off the old block.

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Staged without an intermission, the production rattles along at a satisfying clip, building up a sweaty head of steam by the time it reaches its murderous climax. McGuinness’ dialogue honors the original text’s classical roots with appropriately grandiloquent word choices here and there — "lamentation," for instance, instead of the more colloquial "grieving." But for the most part the language is as briskly direct and comprehensible as the depicted emotions themselves. Nearly every line delivery feels motivated and considered, so that even the women in the chorus (played by Julia Dearden, Golda Rosheuvel and Thalissa Teixeira) have shading and individuation as they variously comfort, confront and counterpoint Electra.

Converted into an in-the-round space for this 2014 season as it was back in 2008, the Old Vic auditorium's neo-rococo splendor makes for a pleasing contrast to the production’s austere set, which consists of little more than an imposing portal, a leafless Godot-esque tree and a dusty circle on the floor.

The blocking and choreography (the latter credited to Maxine Doyle) democratically allow spectators from every seating section to have good views of the actors at regular intervals, although sometimes movements seem somewhat undermotivated. Harvey’s throbbing, autoharp-inflected music richly adds to the sense of doom.

Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Peter Wight, Jack Lowden, Julia Dearden, Golda Rosheuvel, Thalissa Teixeira, Liz White, Diana Quick, Tyrone Huggins

Director: Ian Rickson

Playwright: Sophocles, adaptation by Frank McGuinness

Designer: Mark Thompson

Lighting designer: Neil Austin

Music: PJ Harvey

Sound designer: Simon Baker

Choreographer: Maxine Doyle

Presented by The Old Vic & Sonia Friedman Productions