Electra by Sophocles in a new version by Frank McGuinness

You know you are watching a production on the London stage when the excellent quality of voice production is so evident. Each of the actors’ voices resonated so effortlessly from the outset, filling the large cavernous space of the Old Vic theatre. This production has just opened and already is enjoying full houses.

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The breath support and the use and emphasis on vowels expressed the emotions of hatred, jealousy and sorrow within this Greek tragedy by Sophocles. Words such as murder, you, life and pain were pronounced with such vigour and many of the lines were delivered with such strength and conviction that their force kept the audience motionless and engaged for the entire duration of the play’s one hour 45 minutes. This adaptation by Frank McGuinness was first produced in 1997 and is enjoying its current revival at present. It is a pure, direct and emotionally powerful adaptation which is the final play of the 2014 Old Vic season.

It was a surprise to be greeted by an auditorium configured in-the-round. I always remembered the Old Vic as a classic proscenium-arch stage. The ornate framing of the stage is still there but it was filled with raked audience seats. To one side was a large and beautiful double door which was used effectively to indicate the gateway between the domestic and the public. In this tragedy, like so many, the women break out from the inside and come out front of the door to express themselves and deliver their sorrow and work out a way forward using the outside world as a sounding board.

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It is Electra (Kristin Scott Thomas) who is determined to do this whilst her stepfather Aegisthus (Tyrone Huggins) is away from the house. Scott Thomas is mesmerising as Electra. Her voice booms with so much emotional content and her body moves with agility all over the stage. This rapid movement is contrasted when she uses a motionless body when the attention moved to other characters and she was left to listen to their opinions. Electra wants to avenge the death of her father Atreus, blaming her mother Clytemnestra (Diane Quick) and Aegisthus for his death. She laments that her brother Orestes (Jack Lowden) has not returned to help her with this revenge. She asks her sister Chrysothemis (Liz White) to collude with her in her quest to settle the score. Initially, Chrysothemis refuses, but then is convinced by Electra after hearing her persuasive arguments. Meanwhile, Servant (Peter Wright) and Orestes hatch a plan to finally assist Clytemnestra with her revenge. All of this drama takes place in front of the female chorus of three (Julie Dearden, Golda Rosheuvel and Thalissa Teixeira). Their interjections throughout the play were meaningful and helped shape the reactions and deliberations of the watchful audience.

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Along with the gigantic door, the performance space was circular and covered in sand. Directly opposite the doors stood a bare and unhealthy looking tree trunk, a symbol of the empty and hollow life of Electra. The in-the-round nature of the piece was carefully choreographed by director Ian Rickson; all the action was compact and clear.

The moment of revelation for Electra when she discovered that the man standing in front of her was indeed her long last brother was very well acted by Scott Thomas; it was her silent embrace that moved the audience. There were many other acting highlights and this is the very reason this production is already so popular.

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The music of PJ Harvey was another feature that brought this play to life. The sound was eerie and somewhat discordant at times and served the play well. So much came together to render this Greek drama accessible. Scott Thomas effortlessly conveyed the complex inner world of Electra even though sometimes she may tip into the realm of the slightly histrionic, her overall performance displayed an actor at home on stage and a strong trust of her director –  Rickson and Scott Thomas have worked a few times previously with other classical texts.

Electra is a powerful play and this production deserves full marks.

Electra by Sophocles

In a version by Frank McGuinness

Old Vic Theatre, London.

4/5 stars.

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