“They took his life. They took MY life”
There’s something fiercely elemental about Kristin Scott Thomas’ extraordinary performance as Electra that makes it the perfect choice for the in-the-round setting that the Old Vic has wisely kept for a season of work. The sheer depth of feeling she generates like a vortex that sucks us all in, with her at its dark heart, hollowed out by grief and howling through the floor at Persephone to unleash the power of the underworld or perhaps just swallow her whole to release her from the torment of her existence.
Why so sad? Well, her father Agamemnon sacrificed her sister Iphigenia which annoyed her mother Clytemnestra (along with his schtupping Cassandra) who then murdered Agamemnon with her new lover (and his cousin) Aegisthus. Electra thus swore to avenge her father’s death, sending away her young brother Orestes to return when he was old to enough to fulfil the deed, and remaining rebelliously in court with her sister as an almost impossibly embittered soul.
Frank McGuinness’ version of Sophocles’ tale, used to great acclaim by Zoë Wanamaker at the Donmar, makes a virtue of its stripped-back simplicity and in Ian Rickson’s astute production, never lets us forget just how on the edge Electra is. Dirtied and damaged, Scott Thomas is never off the stage aside from the opening scene and ensures we’re locked right beside her in her downwards spiral – the scene when she is reunited with Jack Lowden’s Orestes as she careers from grief to glee is excruciatingly fantastic as the fragility of her emotional wellbeing is laid bare.
The other characters thus have to step gingerly around Electra to try and avoid being trapped in her whirlpool of woe. Liz White is achingly, beautifully poised as Chrysothemis, the other sister more happy to appease her mother, perhaps recognising that her prospects in this patriarchal society aren’t necessarily completely over (unlike Electra’s), and Diana Quick is awesomely fearsome as that mother, one scene enough to convey the complex layers of vengeful motivation that plague this mother/daughter relationship, which is strikingly echoed in the final scene.
Tyrone Huggins’ Aegisthus is intriguingly done though, less obviously the villain of Electra’s mind – suggesting perhaps an element of warped perspective on her behalf – and more philosophical. His searching question (and I hope I got this right) “shall there be killing after killing forever?” stands proud in the face of the inalienable concept of justice that lies at the heart of Electra, and Orestes’, being, the mellifluous voices of Julia Dearden, Golda Roshuevel and Thalissa Teixeira as the chorus adding to the commentary on their actions.
PJ Harvey’s music, something I was most excited about, is perhaps a little under-utilised but there’s something admirable in Rickson’s choice to keep things spare and subtle – Neil Austin’s lighting and Simon Baker’s sound design are also both understated, just hinting at the ominous mood that comes almost entirely from the acting in the midst of Mark Thompson’s atmospheric and timeless set design, dominated by its huge set of palace doors. A powerful piece of theatre and a performance that will linger long in the mind.