I love the Old Vic. Let me get that out of the way now. I’ve watched an earth shattering Hedda Gabler there, the tender Winslow Boy and a very strong Sweet Bird of Youth (even if Kim Catrall’s wig was a bit eyebrow raising). Kevin Spacey as the Artistic Director has performed miracles there.
Sadly, Electra is not one of them. This was the single most disappointing play I have ever watched in London and I don’t feel I am exaggerating when I say that effectively its a crime against Sophocles and ancient Greek tragedy.
I assume you know the story, if not, here is the handy Wikipedia entry.
The only good thing about Electra is the set. Honestly, the transformation of the Old Vic into an approximation of an ancient Greek theatre, with the set in the middle and the seats all around it is brilliant.
The text is precise. Frank McGuinness does an excellent job in adapting a difficult play. He creates sentences that show the chasm between Sophocles’s characters, showing through words, each person’s identity. Electra goes on and on, Clytemnestra twists the story, Chrysothemis tries desperately to comply.
That’s where the good stuff ends. From the moment Kristin Scott Thomas sets her bare feet on the stage to the ridiculous altering of the ending (spoilers below) the experience left me bemused, disappointed and enraged in equal measures.
I read on Susannah Clapp’s review that
Scott Thomas has for some time preferred working in the theatre and is fed up with film parts that require her to “fuss about with tea cups”.
Well then, put me in an empire line dress and call me Miss Dashwood, cause that’s exactly what Scott Thomas does. I half expected her to bring out a cup of tea, seeing how her Electra is basically a comical madwoman, with her lines delivered with a subversive sense of irony, better suited to Goshford Park than an ancient Greek Tragedy.
Scott Thomas and Ian Rickson (the director) seem to have sat down over tea and scones and went though the following thought process: Who the hell mourns after so many years? Oh no, we can’t have that (stiff upper lip and all that), she is clearly unhinged, let’s make this abundantly clear. Slap some humorous delivery in there dear Christine cause all this pain is a bit too much for a night out in the theatre dontcha know!
Even lines that should evoke a terrible sense of loss are delivered in such a way that that audience actually laughs. “I will turn to dust waiting for Orestes”, Electra says, and Scott Thomas delivers it like the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey. It’s funny when it should be tragic.
Even when it is time for Electra to convince Chrysothemis, her much more compliant sister, that they have to do the deed themselves, the line “no, don’t move away” is delivered in such a way that it’s ridiculous. The audience laughs when we should be shocked.
Even when Electra finally realises that Orestes, her long lost brother, is standing before her the audience cannot stop the giggles. There is a powerful moment there, with Electra holding him and smelling him, a scene that should be powerful and evocative. But it’s hilarious the way it’s done!
Don’t even get me started on the ending, when Electra, for some reason only known to the director and probably the cast, embraces her mother’s dead body, a shocking departure from the original play. There is no redemption in Sophocles, there is no pity nor doubt in Electra’s mind. This is about justice – a terrible and cold justice that Electra feels is finally hers. No way is she going back to embrace her adulteress mother.
And this is the whole point. Yes, Electra is not well balanced. Electra has moved beyond the world of daily compromises. Where Chrysothemis accepts that they are now sinking and others are rising, Electra’s fury and sense of justice keep her going. Is this right? Is she mad? These are not questions that should be answered by portraying Electra as the mad woman of the village, spoon feeding us an ethical position instead of letting us think for ourselves. The fundamental struggles of the play – what is justice, what is truth, what is the right way to honour’s one’s parents and house, what is the honest way to live one’s life and where there is no more space for compromise, how a sense of higher justice can destroy a person – are dragged through the mud.
Electra is a noble heroine (that’s in the bloody definition of tragedy by Aristotle, if anyone involved in this play bothered to read it), not a comically unhinged idiot. An ancient Greek tragedy is a journey that should take us through to katharsis, a cleansing of the emotions. There was no cleansing at the end of Electra at the Old Vic because I didn’t identify with that Electra. Her pain was foreign, her madness funny. And because of that, there was no point to the murders.
The whole thing, I am very sad to say, was a crying shame.
Disclosure: Saw Electra at the Old Vic on 21 November 2014 with my friend Hero and we paid for our tickets in full. No prior discussion with the theatre took place.
The Old Vic