“There are times when justice is too big a risk”
Anne Carson’s version of Elektra is the latest play to take up residence in the Maria studio upstairs at the Young Vic. Allegedly having written 123 plays, only 7 of Greek playwright Sophocles’ works still remain, yet they remain ever popular: soon to open at the National Theatre, Moira Buffini’s Welcome to Thebes also takes much from his writing. However, this Elektra is doing things a little differently: no press night, no previews, just opening to its audience, oh and all tickets are completely free (though advance booking is strongly recommended!)
Carrie Cracknell’s debut as Associate Director at the Young Vic is a joint effort with Headlong and so it should come as little surprise that it is an inventive fusion of movement, music and text, creating haunting dreamscapes and evocative imagery that really capture the overwhelming aura of grief permeating this play. The whole play is darkly lit with varying shades of gloom and this allows for some eerie dream sequences to be played out with masked dancers at the start, setting the tone for a haunting exploration of grief and what it will drive people to.
King Agamemnon has been killed by his wife Clytemnestra as retribution for allowing their daughter Iphigenia to be used as a sacrifice. Their son Orestes manages to escape but their other two daughters remain, Chrysothemis appears unaffected but Electra is devastated, wracked by grief and the injustice of the crime. As news of her long-lost brother begins to filter through she becomes hungry for vengeance and a terrible plan to wreak revenge on her mother and her new lover Aegisthus develops, threatening to keep the endless cycle of violence going.
Lydia Leonard is onstage from the moment you enter the Maria studio, curled up asleep in the corner of the marble floor and then never leaves as the devastated Elektra. Haunted by the ghost of her father quite literally, she looks like she hasn’t slept properly since her father’s murder years before and the washed-out Leonard plays the intensity wonderfully, demonstrating her psychological tumult through some harrowing screams, a little diversionary physical activity and the changing cadences of her language, balancing the pursuit of vengeance with a keen awareness of what this is doing to her psyche. Carson is a poet herself and so her version has its own poetic rhythm and depth which Leonard deals with admirably, the use of colloquialisms giving it a more modern feel although I suspect the translation of ‘howling bitch’ maybe uses a little dramatic license!
I enjoyed Amanda Hale’s pragmatic and slightly nerdy Chrysothemis, having loved her in Our Class last year and Nadia Cameron-Blakey’s grotesque Clytemnestra was suitably monstrous in her selfishness: Tom Mison was also good as Orestes though I would have liked to have seen more of him. Special mention should go to Babou Ceesay and Cath Whitefield who displayed precision timing in delivering their lines as the Chorus in unison, often in the deep gloom. The lighting by Guy Hoare is superbly done and combined with Tom Mills’ haunting operatic score is most atmospheric.
It seems incredible that the Young Vic can mount such an endeavour, involving such a talented cast and a major theatre company, for free. I imagine that this Electra will not be for everyone, it is as much a mood as it is a play but it is hauntingly, stylishly done.