For the punters of the front rows, there is spittle on the faces and sand in between the toes. A sparse, Spartan colourlessness washes over the simple stage set, enclosed by the audience on all sides. It lends the Old Vic a bear pit meets sand pit atmosphere that increases the already electric energy of anticipation ahead of this, the penultimate show of a sold out, critically acclaimed run. A big, brown front door rears up stage left. On descending the Argos palace steps, a water fountain springs from the sandpit at stage-centre, while a truncated tree trunk looms to the right, penetrating the desert scenes with its looming, jagged shadow. It is an image of isolation, the perfect setting for a classic tale of classical tragedy.
Like a chameleon, Kristin Scott Thomas sheds her skin to reflect the setting. Shoeless and clad in sandy rags, her Electra absorbs a ghostlike transparency, disappearing into the backdrop under the subsuming weight of her unburdened grief. Following the news of the death of her brother, Orestes, she finds herself lonely lamenting outside the house of her mother, Clytemnestra: an endless force for evil, Electra’s father, Agamemnon’s killer and the lover of the grotesquely usurping, Aegisthus. Electra, in a state of residential exile, devotes her days to her familial doom, abject and alone, beside a home she no longer loves, but loathes.
No one shows sympathy for her sunken state. Least of all, Diana Quick’s Clytemnestra whose ice queen steel sucks the life breath out of the scenes, casting her own cold pallor across the bleak, black doldrums of despair. In the pursuit of realising these bitter throes of agony, Scott Thomas throws her arms around in a rather distractingly skewered style. Though the acting is intense, she seems to lack the power of tone, registering an unpalatable blend of conversational asides and a vocal that packs little punch, rather prematurely flashing through the gears of emotional dislocation. Whether this is the impact of three months on the stage, truly shredding for any vocal cord or the direction of Ian Rickson, it is difficult to tell. But one definite is the adaptation of Frank McGuinness that, although accessible, betrays the spirit of tragedy for a more casual blend of vignettes and sudden sparks of rage. The hybrid undercuts the nihilistic heart of tragedy, giving some of Scott Thomas’ comments an air of middle class coffee shop than Athenian City Dionysia.
If we compare Electra to The National Theatre’s summertime, suicidal stomp, Medea, it is truly a shade of autumnal ochre to Medea’s black beating heart of darkness. While Medea encompassed an ensnaring vortex of depression and emotional dread, brought to deathlike life in the vixen form of Helen McCrory, Scott Thomas’ Electra is a pastille pale fading into the spotlight. Ben Power’s Medea came accompanied by a thumping background bass, courtesy of Alison Goldfrapp’s invigorating score; here PJ Harvey MBE is woefully underused. Take the recent BBC 2 success, Peaky Blinders, by a happy coincidence, also featuring a brooding brummie Helen McCrory, to see the potential PJ Harvey’s peerless corpus of work can have on distilling the stylistic identity of a creative piece. In Electra, there are random squalls of guitar noise, but the soundtrack is far too polite and quiet, disappearing into the coughs of the December audience. Medea was a transformative, fascinating reworking of a traditional tragedy polished with a groovy, Friday night-out vibe. The police sirens screaming down Waterloo Road echo round the theatre providing the most substantial soundtrack to this very basic production of Electra.
Yet, as Electra risks whimpering to its conclusion, redemption comes in that most forgotten of forms: the tragedian himself, Sophocles. They could write a darn good story those Greeks and Electra is no exception. Though a faintly foppish Orestes lacks the power of delivery to fulfil the true force of the greatest possible coming of age moment, spilling your own mother’s blood, and a walk-on Aegisthus falls boomingly flat, the climax remains a rare treat. As Orestes stumbles back onstage, hands crimson daubed, we finish on the ultimate act of vengeance and a good old fashioned blast of Greek nemesis to fuel those festive fires. A play worthy of adulation, certainly, but adoration, perhaps not…