'Electra' review or 'Grave digging!'
Electra, Sophocles, a version by Frank McGuinness
The Old Vic, 6th October 2014
‘Pain, pain, paaaaain,’ cries out Kristin Scott Thomas’ Electra, upon hearing about the supposed death of her brother Orestes. It is an awful moment, packed with emotion so thick and real, you feel it might choke you. Ian Rickson’s earnest production of Sophocles’ Electra is peppered with many of these tormented pangs. It is very hard work. Accomplished, yes, but seriously heavy going, a bit like an incredibly plot-light episode of Eastenders with every emotion dialled up to the max.
The plot is really quite simple. Some scholars will refer to Sophocles' plotting as ‘exquisitely pared down’ or ‘viciously economical’ but I will call it simple. Electra’s father, Agamemnon, is dead. He has been murdered by his not-so-dear wife, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus, who Clytemnestra has now wed. Electra is understandably unhappy about it and her only hope is that her brother Orestes, might one day return and restore order to the household. In the meantime, Electra is determined to wait and wail.
There’s no denying that Kristin Scott Thomas can wail and rail with the best of them. She is exquisitely tortured throughout. Her face is chalked up and her cheekbones accentuated so she looks like a walking skeleton. She wears white rags and a shawl and there is a determined yet slightly demented air about her which reminds one of the Parliament Square protestor, Brian Haw.
For much of the time, Scott Thomas’ Electra looks like she has got one foot placed firmly in the grave. Mark Thompson’s dust-swept set accents this idea. A dead tree stands alone on a chalky barren landscape, all overlooked by a huge oak door, behind which all manners of horror reside. It feels like this scorched ground is Electra’s patch, a living grave she has built herself and where she is determined to dwell, whilst her father’s murder goes un-avenged.
Everything about Scott Thomas’ performance is carved out of sorrow. Her voice sounds flattened by anguish and her face, sharpened by it. And yet – all this sorrow does tend to get a bit samey! As Electra carefully vocalises her sadness (Frank McGuinness’ version is typically clear cut and somehow contains all that tragic weight within amazingly clean and light prose), one’s patience grows thin. At one point, Electra proclaims - ‘I have a job to do – to weep sore tears’ - and one wishes, guiltily, that she wouldn’t take her job quite so seriously.
It is actually the surprise bursts of happiness and hope that feel the most affecting. The transformation of Scott Thomas’ face when her brother, Orestes, returns is devastating. It is as if her whole face has been clingfilmed down and, suddenly and gloriously, released. Her eyes sparkle, her limbs move more freely and she looks like she can finally breathe again. The scariest moments in Greek tragedy are always those when the tragedians hope; the cyclical nature of Greek tragedy (any tragedy?) will always render such hope futile.
The other actors never seem completely comfortable in their roles. Scott Thomas finds her feet because she is on stage for the entire bleeding play but the others seem less certain. Diana Quick’s Clytemnestra is horribly showy and Jack Lowden’s Orestes is weirdly casual in the opening scene, which leaves him with an awful lot of catching up to do as the deadly drama engulfs him.
The final scenes, when the plot finally creaks into gear, are undoubtedly thrilling. When those huge oak doors open, it feels like the gates of hell have been torn apart. And when Kristin’s Scott Thomas’ Electra curls up alongside a fresh corpse, one glimpses – with a chill – the endless line of inevitable tragedies still to come.