“How long was it supposed to go on – this mother thing?”
On the one hand, it’s rather flipping marvellous to see a play that places multiple older female characters at its heart, continuing the stirring efforts of Indhu Rubasingham’s artistic directorship at the Tricycle Theatre to continue to broaden the scope of the stories it tells, far beyond the white male dominance we often see on our stages. And its themes of individual expression versus maternal love fit neatly into an emerging trend that we’ve seen in contemporary plays I’ve really loved like Love Love Love and The Last of the Haussmans.
On the other hand, I’m not too sure that I really liked April De Angelis’ After Electra, a Theatre Royal Plymouth production directed here by Prince Caspian himself Samuel West. It has a sparky beginning as uncompromising artist Virgie decides to celebrate her 81st birthday with family and friends by declaring that she’s going to take her own life while she’s still compos mentis enough for it to be her decision. Notions of what longer life expectancy really means and how that impacts on familial relationships suggest something intriguing lurking in Michael Taylor’s handsomely appointed set.
The first half plays out with a near-sitcom-like sense of humour as the procession of guests – Virgie’s gloomy daughter Haydn, the pretentious couple of old friends, her chalk’n’cheese sister and her schlub of a son – all find out about the suicidal plan and react in their own, mostly selfish, ways. But trying to off herself doesn’t quite come off as she planned and the second half takes a darker turn as the very thing she feared takes over Virgie’s life and the resentments and turmoil of their shared past family life come back to the surface in vicious ways.
De Angelis’ writing never hit the spot in either case for me. The comedy never felt sharp or believable enough and the dramatic revelations of the second act felt unoriginal in their pursuit of explaining away artistic genius as if a bit of talent permits anyone to abdicate their responsibility to being a decent person, or indeed parent. It is fearsomely acted though with Marty Cruickshank leading by example as the poignantly angry Virgie, with Veronica Roberts as her aggrieved daughter offering a powerful counter-presence.