It’s the old luvvie’s refrain: treat new plays like classics and classics like new plays. In Electra’s case Sophocles may well have found himself sitting down to some hair-tearing sessions with his dramaturg. Classic it may be, but there are a fair few sticky moments of plotting. It’s difficult to relish a speech gushing over a chariot race’s horses, or to invest in the news of family death, when both events have just been revealed to be whoppers. Another dubious move is to have the titular role waiting on her brother to save the day. Fair enough, this is ancient Greece, not every female lead can be expected to go Kill Bill. But you can’t help wishing Medea were there to teach Electra a thing or two about taking the initiative.
As with any family feud, it’s a Herculean labour to figure out how it all began. But take it from Agamemnon, who sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia in order to get the Greeks to the Trojan War on time. In revenge for this rather careless parenting, his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus take the hatchet to him at his welcome home feast. Daughter Electra is left like a crazed Cinderella in the wake of her father’s slaughter, unable to put up and shut up like her more pliant sister Chrysothemis. She is a Grecian Hamlet, incapable of much beyond mourning, lingering on news of her exiled brother Orestes and the hope of action.
Mark Thompson’s asymmetrical design creates an imposing epicentre for the Old Vic’s return to theatre-in-the-round. The House of Atreus’ great doors tower over the set in a fine metaphor for the family curse, ready to topple and crush the whole brood – in fact there’s already the telltale scatter of rubble. Opposite is a blasted trunk, rotten and fruitless, to which Electra pins a picture of her father, while a single tap drips in the yard like the muffled voice of pity. Neil Austin’s lighting scorches an already desiccated stage, and sumptuously achieves a world where the encircling audience is quickly forgotten.
The cast are capable: Peter Wight makes for a solid, mellifluous Servant while Diana Quick as Clytemnestra imperiously defends her mariticide. But the production is weighted, almost to its detriment, by Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance as Electra. She is lithe, girlish, marvelously gauche – teetering on a rock or thumping the ball of her foot on the steps, hoisting her dress’ neckline to hide a tongue manically lashing her lips. Thomas explores the character of bereavement relentlessly, her limpid beauty haunting: eyes of pale fire, hair chopped and fussed, eyebrows escalating like an axeman’s blade. Her voice, slightly torn, veers between barbs of dry wit and tremendous moans wrung through the press of her heart. She is eminently earthbound, and spends much of her time in the dust, summoning Persephone from Hades, begging the undead for justice.
PJ Harvey’s music, an insistent strum, is subtle and effective; the downward stroke as inevitable as the shook-shook-shook of the Fates’ scissors. Ian Rickson’s direction seems slightly flummoxed by the staging, leaving the attentive Chorus of three Mycenaean women circling and shuffling to keep the action un-obscured. Frank McGuinness’ text has snatches of prime poetry (enemies “dance” on Electra’s heart, sobs “spill” through the house), but the delicious cuts of irony somehow spoil our appetite for the tragedy. Costumes are eclectic, putties and pirate caps – though the frocks, even the disregarded Electra’s, are sublime.
For all that Thomas’ performance is a wonder (and never less than in her remarkable olfactory reception of her brother), it, like the production, is a little too composed to compel. The wild beast of woe feels leashed. There is a sense here that the thread of ancient tragedy has been lost – what it means and how it moves through us. Perhaps this echoes the theories that our minds have evolved beyond the two-hour narrative structure, craving as they do now the complexities of the box set. Perhaps our hearts now, too, ask more than this tour de force of grief.