Mourning Becomes Kristin
Back in July, in a rare moment of prescience, I urgently recommended that readers book in advance for Sophocles’ Electra, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, coming to the Old Vic in September. Specifically, I said I would go see Kristin Scott Thomas reading the proverbial phone book! No need to be careful what I wished for; I got my wish last month, and I’m a very lucky guy!
Using Frank McGuinness’ brilliant 1990 adaptation (originally played by Zoe Wannamaker), I suspect the Old Vic’s new production of Electra will become legendary. It has been called a “kill-for-a-ticket triumph,” and I’ve heard has a good chance of making an appearance in New York as well, so remain alert.
My younger daughter spotted its potential last June when tickets first went on sale and took me as a belated Father’s Day Present; she had also managed to get us seats about three feet from where the action was taking place in a superbly reconfigured auditorium that presents the show in the round. I was doubly lucky because there was something quite touching and somehow even symbolic about seeing the quintessential play about a daughter who really loves her father with my daughter,
There’s much to say about the play itself, staged here with grave control in a superb production by Ian Rickson. I know the opera by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmansthal; it’s fascinating to see how different some aspects of the interpretation of this myth are or, rather, how differently Strauss and Hoffmansthal approached it.
But the main focus of amazement and excitement for everyone has been the riveting, intense performance by Kristin Scott Thomas—haggard, riddled with neurosis, monomaniacal, intensely calm at times, blackly humorous, given to flaring bursts of fury that could sear your skin. She and Rickson have become quite a team—they did Chekhov’s The Seagull, and both Betrayal and Old Times by Harold Pinter together to much acclaim and many awards; Their Electra is the perfect setting for Thomas’s performance. She is a diamond that truly burns.
Along with the sound and fury you would expect of a Greek tragedy, she and Rickson understand the need for peaks and valleys; there is actually quite a bit of self-deprecating humour in the readings of several lines that enhances the more harrowing moments. This is not a non-stop gloomfest, as some very bad productions of Sophocles have been in the past. And it is also a thoughtful. It gets very compelling when Diana Quick’s plausible Clytemnestra debates with her daughter Electra the question of why Agamemnon had to be killed in the first place, and the whole context of the curse on the family. Kristin Scott Thomas listens, argues, defies; but her eyes also show a moment of hesitation, a flash of self-doubt before she dismisses this and launches into her verbal attacks on her mother.
Three fine actresses make a good chorus, commenting and interacting as required, and the production promotes a sense of the old hieratic and ceremonial function of theatre in Greek classic times. Mark Thomson’s simple set and the reconfiguring of the theatre itself intensify the experience.
When all is said and done, though, the night is Electra’s, as it should be. The scene where she realizes that the callow young man played by Jack Lowden is actually her brother Orestes returned to fulfil the vengeance required of him—not only by her and but by the gods—is forever haunting. Everything that Kristin Scott Thomas does in her performance rings true; Electra is being eaten alive by her passion for revenge. but she also wants something more, something abstract— real justice. The truth to Electra’s character is Kristin Scott Thomas’s great triumph in this production, along with her astonishing physical and vocal technique. But there’s more: her ability to make an audience utterly sympathetic to her while also terrifying them with the intensity of her obsession. It’s a superb and unforgettable experience and I will continue to be grateful to my own daughter for taking me to it.
The play continues at the Old Vic until 20 December (I guess they didn’t think it would make a great Christmas Show.) And beware: there is no interval, so if you are late you cannot get in to see it live, but will have to watch it on a closed-circuit television in the lobby. http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2014/electra/