Featuring enough wailing, gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands to make King Lear look like a sitcom, it takes a skilled hand to translate and reenact the melodrama of Sophocles’ Electra – the ancient playwright’s tale of the Princess of Argos who was sent into the pit of despair by the death of her father by her mother – to suit modern audience’s less histrionic tastes without losing the drama of the original.
And hands don’t get much more skilled that Frank McGuinness especially when his translated script is brought to life by Kristin Scott Thomas and director Ian Rickson. Scott Thomas owns the stage – or rather the Round – from the minute she opens the doors of her mother and stepfather’s mansion – or as Electra calls it in her hyperbolic way, her prison – bounding down the stairs to the sandy space that she prowls like an injured lioness for the next one hour 40 minutes.
Besides the sand and those big doors, there are few props, just a bare tree trunk and the rather odd addition of a standing tap. If there’s one thing this production missteps on, it’s the inability to make up its mind as to which era we’re in; superficially it’s ancient Greece, but then there’s denim dresses and running water. There’s also more than a touch of modernity in McGuinness’s script, which is sprightly and often humorous, or at least Scott Thomas finds the wit in the contemporary rhythm of her delivery.
But despite the odd guffaw, this is serious stuff. Scott Thomas’ Electra distress is evident in her physicality; painfully thin, twitchy, dusty with that sand, bent double with grief, hatred and anger. Perhaps at times, her performance tips over into the overdramatic, her tears of anguish on hearing of the supposed death of her brother was to my ears more grating than great and their reunion bordering on the affected. But then, Electra, the play and the woman, were never meant to be subtle.
I liked Scott Thomas best when she was spitting venom, much of it aimed at her poor mother who threatens to put her in an asylum if she doesn’t stop her ravings. There’s a great stand off between her and her hated mother, played with cool poise by Diana Quick.
I was caught up in Scott Thomas’ performance, perhaps less so by the story and, as good as the supporting cast is – and some, including Quick and Peter Wight as Orestes’ (played by the physically imposing Jack Lowdon last seen, by me at least, in the Almedia’s Ghosts) gruff servant are very good – this was her show. Even the score by PJ Harvey but muted, its haunting strains seeping quietly through and underpinning, but never overwhelming, Electra’s distress.
For tickets and more information, visit www.oldvic.com.
by Suzanne Elliott