Mourning Does Not Become Electra

The summer saw the National Theatre’s critically-acclaimed and clever production of Euripides’ Medea directed by Carrie Cracknell and starring the brilliant Helen Mcrory. This autumn Ian Rickson brings Sophocles’ Electra to the Old Vic with Frank McGuinness’ ‘version’ first performed in the West End and Broadway in 1997, where Zoe Wannamaker took the title role.


Sophocles' Electra is the story of the daughter of Agamemnon, who was murdered by his errant wife Clytemnestra on his return from the Trojan war. The whole myth is perhaps best known as the basis for Aeschylus' Oresteia; here we only have part of that generational struggle for revenge set years after Agamemnon's murder with the return of Electra's brother Orestes from hiding.


It is a difficult play especially for a modern audience, partly because of the complicated relationships and mythology but also because it relies so much on what is about to happen rather than what that is actually happening. If Medea is a play in which drama and intent twists like a serpent, Electra is a play whose landscape is set early leaving the audience (on tenterhooks) to wait. Yet despite this, it is exceptional with themes not uncommon in tragedy but still interesting: how does one cope with grief and the need for revenge?


Rickson's production is performed 'in the round' creating an intimate if a barren and disjointed set. It is physically and intellectually impressive telling a story itself of moral collapse and illegitimacy, of past glory and present decay. The House of Atreus clings to power, bankrupted by its own crimes. I did not see the original 1997 production which premiered McGuinness’s adaptation but here it is a clear, solid work which is littered with sometimes grim humour. It is does not in my opinion match the poetic rhythm of the original. That is not the intention but its lack of obvious beauty is an inherent flaw.


Every text and every director is only as good as the cast assembled; here we are lucky. Diana Quick is a great Clytemnestra. She dominates the stage and exudes the cold ruthlessness of power; when Quick speaks she is impossible to avoid crafting the extraordinary steel of her role into every word. Yet she also brings to the character the near world-weariness of a leader whose necessary decisions have chipped away at their character. It is a complex portrayal that is aware of the moral shades of grey in actions. This is theatre. This is tragedy. Clytemnestra is one of the mesmerising characters of the ancient stage: this is a truly memorable performance equal to that character that sets a standard for greatness.

 Kristin Scott Thomas - such a fine, versatile actress and under-rated for her stage work - plays Electra, her eyes redden with grief and torment, her skin pale and ashen. Visually she is the part but while a powerful, intriguing performance I am not sure it is tragic. She moves around the stage erratically and nervously, consumed by her plans, but her movement is in contrast to her character which is rigid and set. This Electra is one who is stunted by her grief and trapped by her desire for revenge but one for whom we can draw no discernible narrative. It is a pity because Scott Thomas brings force to the role, and can be sharp, even sarcastic at times, but these are variations on the same theme rather than great shifts. While her constant movement was unnecessary I hoped there would be a moment when her character would be allowed to match the events which surrounded her, consumed her and which she shaped. It did not come.

It is a waste which feeds into Ian Rickson’s somewhat unsubtle if thought-provoking direction. I got the impression that this was the intention, to create a very modern tragedy with a look at the immature introspection and self-obsession of the Twitter age. Interesting yes, but also unmoving.

Yet Electra is a moving play; its ending is one of the most brilliant and terrifying of all the tragic cannon. The possibilities are immense. As Scott Thomas' Electra enacts her revenge she is ultimately triumphant. But nothing is allowed to change. Perhaps that is the point which Rickson is trying to make: that revenge is not only an unedifying dish but also an unsatisfying one for its authors, the trouble is then it also becomes unsatisfying for an audience.