“Electra, you need to calm down”
This version of Electra by Nick Payne which is currently playing at the Gate Theatre is brand new, but it does bear some resemblance to the production Elektra, which played, for free, at the Young Vic last summer. That version was by Anne Carson was a co-production with Headlong but is now being labelled the workshop production of this one, as it was also directed by Carrie Cracknell and featured the same creative team around her here, indeed one of the actresses involved has travelled too though Cath Whitefield has been promoted from the chorus to the title role.
Based on Sophocles’ Ancient Greek myth, the story centres on Electra, seething with rage at the murder of her father Agamemnon at the hand of her mother Clytemnestra, who in turn was avenging his sacrifice of another of their daughters, Iphigenia, to appease the gods for a prevailing wind. Electra ships off her younger brother to safety but remains with her mother and new lover, silently plotting for the chance to take the ultimate revenge in the memory of her father and praying for a brother she has not seen for ten years.
I enjoyed last year’s Elektra but I have to say I loved this one as it was recognisable to some extent in its use of movement and music and a few key scenes, but it is also full of new, inspired choices. Holly Waddington’s design situates the audience in single file along the lengths of the room allowing the action to play in traverse to great effect, which is created by Guy Hoare’s highly atmospheric lighting which conceals as much as it illuminates, no bad thing considering the violence contained within this vengeful family. Making the chorus a younger version of Electra also works exceptionally well, played here by Fern Deacon, often singing a set of haunting duets, composed by Tom Mills, with her older self. Best of all though is the opening sequence of a series of spotlighted images emerging from the darkness which illustrate the mental state of most of the main characters before the play proper begins.
Cracknell inspires bruisingly intense performances from her cast, which just add to the claustrophobia in this already small space. Cath Whitefield is a tower of clenched, barely suppressed rage as the anguished Electra, her flashes of angry energy are genuinely disturbing and one can sense the struggle she has to deal with the return of her long-gone brother Orestes, played with blood-thirsty zeal by Alex Price. They are counterpointed well by Natasha Broomfield’s more composed Chrysothemis whose hidden pain is possibly more moving than Electra’s tantrums and they are united against their mother Clytemnestra , a slinkily manipulative Madeleine Potter who was sadly under-used.
Payne’s version is mostly elegant, with long poetic stretches and condensing it down to 80 minutes, paired with Cracknell’s direction, means that it is a pacy piece of drama. The flipside to this is that if you don’t have a working knowledge of Sophocles’ original story, you may find yourself lost so a quick acquaintance with a synopsis of the story so far might not go amiss to ensure you get the most out of this. It is productions like this that make one really appreciate the London fringe theatre scene, there’s such ingenuity and exciting innovation going on, paired with immense talent both creatively and cast-wise willing to perform under such intimate scrutiny and Electra is probably the best exponent of all of this currently playing in London.