It took me a long time to decide what I wanted to say about the Old Vic production of Sophocles’ Electra, directed by Ian Rickson. My lack of clarity is mostly because I wanted to like it more than I did. It gets many things right, it has integrity, it has a strong character. Still it never caught fire in my imagination.
Sophocles’ Electra is a simple story, at least when it comes to plot. Without giving much away, Electra waits for someone, unlike Godot he arrives. Much of the play it’s people describing what happened, either in the distant or recent past. What happened is important to them, to the point of risking their lives and their future. It’s linked to values and the gods and a changing world. At its best it’s ideas grabbing people by the throat.
Electra is a complicated character and 2500 years since the play was written have added layers of ambiguity. She is strong and determined, unwavering, fanatical. She is also committed to patriarchical values: she takes her father’s side and defends the values he represents. (Agamemnon – although murdered – is far from an innocent victim. He tricked his wife into sacrificing their daughter, then went to war for ten years and expected that his wife would stay behind and wait for him). Were these values unambiguous for audiences two millenia ago? If so, they aren’t any more.
The first time we see Kristin Scott Thomas, her hair is hidden under a scarf, giving her face the appearance of a skull. Once the scarf is off, her appearance softens but that first impression is close to the mark when it comes to the character. Electra is a ghost, not unlike Hamlet’s father. She has a notion of justice she pursues the way only the dead can. Kristin Scott Thomas is precise, intense, clawing her way in every nook and cranny of the character.
Jack Lowden as Orestes has the softness of the boy who is about to become a man. He suggests an openness and impulsiveness, a half asleep understanding of the world, like a newborn animal staggering into the light.
As is so often the case with greek drama, the characters off centre steal the limelight. Peter Wight as the servant gives a performance of immense tenderness, with a subtle but all too powerful outpouring of love that the play so desperately needs.
The set, designed by Mark Thompson, has a tactile texture, with running water and a barren tree and worn marble. Even in the low light, it carries the memory of burning sun.
I was not entirely convinced by Frank McGuinness’ translation: down to earth and pragmatic, at times it felt unresponsive. One of the biggest challenges for any production of greek drama is to translate otherworldly motives into something resonant. In this case, the material seemed too stiff and unmalleable to incite that leap of faith.
More than other british productions of greek drama I have seen, this version of Electra reminds me of greek productions of greek tragedy. There is a sparseness to it, a singularity of purpose. Equally, I felt a coldness, the ghosts overtaking the living, the blood draining away. I found much to admire but not enough to love.