THEATRE REVIEW: Electra, Old Vic

runs until 20 December

Part of the Old Vic’s season in the round, Electra is one of those theatrical events that we’ve been looking forward to for much of the year, with the exciting combination of a new translation by Frank McGuinness, acclaimed direction of Ian Rickson and the superb acting talents of Kristin Scott-Thomas that promised to bring this Ancient Greek classic to life once more. Perhaps it’s the weight of expectation playing its cruel tricks, but for me this retelling of Sophocles’s tragedy is in fact more problematic than it is mind-blowing, despite some excellent performances and creative work.

Electra at the Old Vic
Electra at the Old Vic

Staging the piece in the round is effective, and from the Lilian Baylis Circle there is certainly a sense of looking down on a very focused, almost claustrophobic sphere, enclosed by the audience and the high walls of the family home. It is this sphere into which Orestes breaks, triggering this revenge tragedy and driving it to its bloody conclusion.

Kristin Scott-Thomas’s face has been plastered all over posters across London, shocking many with its gaunt and shadowy appearance – it’s a long way from Four Weddings and a Funeral. Yet her Electra, clearly halfway to madness if not fully there, is often capricious, at times girlish as she swings between moods rapidly with shrieks of eagerness, wails of despair or silent dejection. Indeed, many of her actions evoke laughter from the audience but, although some are comic, for me many moments are in fact incredibly moving in their desperation. It’s an excellent performance that pushes Scott-Thomas out of her comfort zone, and we see her in a new and impressive light.

However – and this seems more down to the show’s overall direction than her own performance – she appears to be inhabiting a different play to Jack Lowden’s Orestes, who in turn seems mismatched with Tyrone Huggins’s Aegisthus. It’s as if the whole production has an identity crisis. While some elements (Electra, Jenny Bolt’s Clytemenestra [covering for an indisposed Diana Quick], and the scenery) follow a pretty traditional style of playing Greek tragedy, Lowden’s Orestes seems a far more modern incarnation of our tortured revenger, playing with the subject matter rather than bowing to it. Meanwhile Aegisthus (Huggins) takes a more affected approach, his booming tones impressive in a declamatory fashion, but not as engaging on as deep a level as Scott-Thomas’s more nuanced engagement with the grounded, emotional turmoil of the piece.

Of course, there can be great benefit in blending styles: indeed, the combination of classic and modern can bring out the timelessness of ancient works. But in this case, this lack of clear identity creates a muddled piece lacking in focus and missing that heart-wrenching, tragic depth it so requires – despite its fantastic central performance. Yes, it is difficult to maintain dramatic tension when there are few twists; the action plays out just as we are told it will, and in today’s culture we lack the same traditional insistence on revenge and god-fearing punishment of matricide that presented such a (literally) awful dilemma for its first audiences.

Yet the lasting nature of these works proves they can still generate immense power, as demonstrated by this year’s Medea at the National Theatre, amongst others – a great example of how to mix the modern and ancient in a way that stimulates rather than deadens the electricity of the work. Electra sadly doesn’t fulfil its promise as, while the ingredients are there, the mixing of them results in a production that skips over the monstrous tragedy at its heart.

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