Translated by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Ian Rickson
The Old Vic
22nd September to 20th December 2014
Kristin Scott Thomas’s Electra is a prisoner in her own home, whom years of abuse have left sunken-eyed, thin, and nervous. She fidgets with her ragged clothes and sways almost constantly from foot to bare foot, a broken woman. But while Electra has almost entirely given up hope, she hasn’t quite done so. Her hopelessness and torment have warped her into a sarcastic, bitter, wretched soul. And yet somehow, at the same time, she still hopes desperately, cares profoundly, and grieves bitterly for the wrongs done to her and her father, Agamemnon, killed by her mother years earlier on his return from war.
Scott Thomas’s Electra is highly sarcastic: so much so, that it takes me some time to see the balance between her expressions of grief and her flippant hopelessness. While her fidgeting at first evokes the restlessness of a stroppy teenager, we come to see that her manner is not exaggerated scorn as in a temper tantrum, but reflects her genuine bitterness, her personality ground down by years of hardship. The floor of the set – a dusty, bare space before the huge doors of her home – is scuffed up with her shuffling footprints.
The rest of the cast is very strong, including a three-woman chorus of the people, each with her own hints of personality. That we get to know them, and feel their support for Electra, is a major strength of the production, at once tying it to the play’s Classical context and giving it a much-needed breadth beyond the inner struggles of the ruling family. But that family is the play’s heart – Electra and her mother, Clytemnestra, her sister Chrysothemis, and their returning brother, Orestes. Liz White shows us a sympathetic Chrysothemis: not cowardly, although she bows the knee to Clytemnestra to save herself, and truly hurt by Electra’s stubborn refusal to do the same. Next, Clytemnestra, played by Diana Quick, is uncomfortably ambiguous as she angrily describes her justifications for killing Agamemnon. We see glints of the fear she has felt while Orestes still lives, a possible avenger of his father. Whether we feel sympathy for her despite her treatment of Electra, or simply hate her, is left to each of us to decide, although her relieved joy when she hears of Orestes’ death is hard to stomach.
Electra’s reaction to the reported death is tumultuous, but it is quickly overshadowed by the tension and then the gratification of an extended scene in which he returns to her, alive, and slowly they each realise the other’s identity. It’s funny and moving when she leaps at him at last and takes a deep smell of his neck. Jack Lowden gives a fine performance of an avenger who grows in purpose and certainty as he learns of his sister’s treatment at the hands of those he has come to kill.
All that remains are the killings that close the play. By now our sympathies are so far from Clytemnestra and towards Electra in the spectrum of moral ambiguity that the horror of murder is mingled with a strong dose of vindication, even when the body of Clytemnestra is brought, swaddled in red cloth, into the centre of the stage. We are in-the-round, as The Old Vic has been adapted for a season, and at this moment we all feel equally implicated in her death. Aegisthus (Tyrone Huggins), her lover and partner in betrayal, is a proud man made afraid in his brief appearance, and we watch him disappear into the house to be killed too. Justice has been served. But we close on a picture of Electra with her mother’s corpse that complicates what we have just seen, PJ Harvey’s subtle music contributing to the tension. As Chrysothemis pointedly says earlier, drawing a laugh of recognition from the audience: sometimes what is right is also wrong.