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Grief Centre Stage

Pat Butcher

By Sophocles
A new version by Frank McGuinness
Dir. Ian Rickson
The Old Vic, London
Until Saturday 20 December, 2014

Grief is a hard act to conjure, and it is even harder to sustain it for well over an hour, centre stage. Kristin Scott Thomas, in her interpretation of Sophocles’ Electra at the Old Vic, offers a riveting performance of mourning. Trying hard to disguise her dainty frame and fine features with a grubby shift and bedraggled hair, she experiments with a variety of registers, each expertly handled. However, her delivery—ranging from read-through to Jewish stand-up, with stop-overs for bewildered child, betrayed (incestuous?) lover, and matricidal harridan—leaves a lingering unease. The transformation scene—in which her mood switches from grief to unbridled joy at the news that Orestes is not, after all, dead—is close to being a tearjerker. This sentiment, though, is immediately measured by the recollection that Electra’s twin brother is home from exile to take care of the most sinister kind of family business: killing their mother and stepfather, punishment for their murder of Electra’s father, Agamemnon. In the world of this Greek tragedy—in which revenge is shocking, savage, and all very much in the family—the audience’s emotional response is constantly complicated by an awareness of the horrific acts to come.

There is a seminal exercise in storytelling mid-way through the brief 100 minutes performance when Scott Thomas gives centre stage to Peter Wright as the Servant. He has been guardian to the growing Orestes, and during the prologue is given a brief instruction to confound the siblings’ enemies by announcing that the youngster is dead. Consequently, he delivers a description—impromptu but lengthy—of Orestes’ demise in a chariot race, an account so laced with details and asides as to demonstrate the worth and validity of drama itself. Clytemnestra is convinced; and despite Electra’s contempt for what she sees as her mother’s simulated grief, Clytemnestra (Diana Quick’s understudy, Jenny Bolt, in the performance reviewed), demonstrates the tension between her sorrow as a mother and her relief that Orestes’ promise to kill her and her lover Aegisthus cannot be kept.

A 2500 year old play about revenge in a desert kingdom has obvious parallels in a tribal world not far from Ancient Hellas, where tit-for-tat killings are horribly commonplace, albeit with women more often playing the role of victim than instigator. Clytemnestra is free to enjoy her relief only briefly, as is her lover Aegisthus, whose eleventh hour appearance merely serves as attendance at his own death. And the denouement offers no solace. Clytemnestra has suggested that Agamemnon deserved to die because the warrior-king had sacrificed his elder daughter, Iphigenia, in the quest for Troy. Scott Thomas’s weary gesture at the end is far from triumphal, rather a recognition that there is no one left to die, at least not in Argos.

It’s a tour-de-force performance from Scott Thomas, whichever way you look at it. And with the focus intensified by the Old Vic’s continuing experiment with in-the-round staging, and with lines substantially bolstered by Frank McGuinness’s muscular and demotic translation, Ian Rickson’s production is a weighty counterbalance to all that frippery playing out on the neon streets north of the river. With tight, intense productions such as this one, Sophocles’ work will continue to have resonance for at least another two and a half millennia.

Pat Butcher [1] is an author, documentary-maker, and journalist. A feature film of his first book, The Perfect Distance, is in production with BBC Films. He is currently researching a biography of the Czech athlete and patriot, Emil Zátopek.