Ancient Greek Wrongs and Rights
As I wrote back in July, this is quite a year for Greek tragedy on the London stage, and yesterday I was lucky enough to see the Old Vic’s new production of Sophocles’ ‘Electra’ (in a version by Frank McGuinness). It was, unsurprisingly, a bruising afternoon of theatre, and one that certainly explores emotional states that are mercifully almost beyond the scope of many peoples’ imagination. It is also, though, an experience of immense power and one that leaves its audience conscious both of one crime’s having been avenged and, uncomfortably, of another having been committed in the process.
As always in tragedies, so much rests upon the titular character, and Kristen Scott Thomas delivers a performance of unsettling depth as the grief-stricken heroine, grieving for her murdered father at the fringes of a society that has already accepted his murderers as its ruling couple. The Mycenae that we see at the start of the play is not the city from whence Agamemnon marched to war in Troy, but now lies under the control of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover-turned-husband Aegisthus, who plotted against the absent king and slew him when he returned home. Their murder and seizure of power is a fait accompli, but Electra’s refusal to accept this is a jarring note that shows no sign of fading. Denied the possibility of a marriage that would entail the risk of potential rivals for the throne, she pines away in grief and growing anger, the only person left (it seems) who knows that something is badly wrong. Her brother, Orestes, is absent – exiled and, for much of the play, intentionally believed to be dead – and her sister Chrysothemis, although conscious of what ahs occurred, is more pragmatic in her acceptance of events.
Pragmatism, though, is never Electra’s strong suit, and Scott Thomas captures with unsettling force her often barely coherent sense of grief and injustice. Her Electra is always exuding a sense of pent-up rage: her never-still hands always suggestive of what they would do to those around her if only they had the chance, and her speeches attempting to shame others into what, to her, are all-too-visible crimes. She is on-stage pretty much from start to finish, and even when at the margins of conversations and events remains a compelling presence. When Orestes finally returns (his ‘death’ a ruse to put his enemies off their guard) her sense of vengeance is yoked to his and the plot moves towards its brutal conclusion.
There is much to commend in the staging of the play, and the Old Vic’s current ‘in the round’ format creates a claustrophobic space within which characters circle each other as the audience looks on, reinforcing that sense of ritual so often found in the Greek theatre and drawing us into the events that we witness. PJ Harvey’s low-key but pervasive score helps foster our sense of unease, and the nearly bare stage, with a blasted tree-stump such a powerful metaphor for the ruined house of Mycenaean royalty, lets the human drama command out attention. The acting is excellent throughout, with Diana Quick’s Clytemnestra a great foil for Scott Thomas’ rage, and the closing tableau, in which Electra kneels and tries to cradle the corpse of her murdered mother, a powerful moment in which the ‘justice’ that she has sought is both attained and, perhaps, found to be not quite all that she expected.
And that’s the point: the murder of Agamemnon is avenged, but to what end? As Clytemnestra tells her daughter during one of their arguments, her father was a far from ideal man himself: sacrificing his daughter and her sister Iphigenia to secure a favourable wind to sail to Troy and returning home with the Trojan princess Cassandra as his trophy to flaunt in front of his wife. If he is avenged, does that mark a return to order? Sophocles’ rival Aeschylus thought it didn’t, and wove the 3-play cycle of the ‘Orestia’ out of the guilt that is unleashed when the killers are themselves killed and a new set of murderers are created out of the punishment of the first. Orestes kills both his mother and his step-father but by the end of this play looks all but overwhelmed by the scope of what he has done, while Electra’s final embrace of the corpse of the mother whose death she has sought for so long seems, too, a sign that that getting what you wish for is anything but a cause for celebration. How well the Greeks understood that, and how well this production expresses it too – sending its audience home with both a sense of purgation and a nagging anxiety of what its ending portends.