One play that sadly never seems out of date as it explores the urge for revenge, an impulse that still drives so much of the violence in the world, is Sophocles’s great 2,500-year-old tragedy Electra, which returns to the London stage in a gripping new production, directed by Ian Rickson at the Old Vic Theatre.
When our heroine first emerges from the palace at Argos, where she is kept a virtual prisoner by her mother, Clytemnestra, she is hollow-eyed, ashen faced, filthy and dressed in a torn, sweat-stained shift. Electra has been waiting years for her brother Orestes to come and avenge their mother’s murder of their warrior hero father Agamemnon. Brooding the earthen forecourt of the palace, totally consumed by her vehement passion for justice.
It is a measure of Sophocles’s even-handedness that he neither condemns nor condones Electra’s vengefulness: indeed he goes out of his way to give Clytemnestra right of reply by allowing her to argue that she murdered Agamemnon in retaliation for his sacrifice of Iphigenia (his other daughter).
Director Ian Rickson has chosen to us Frank McGuinness’s lucid version of this age-old but timeless play, whose stark tone is matched by Mark Thompson’s desolate design – a simple earth-pit dominated by a barren tree stump and the imposing door and looming stone wall of the palace – and P.J. Harvey’s ominous music that seems to articulate the female rage that drives the drama.
But what really impresses is the tour de force performance by Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra. This isn’t the actress we’ve grown used to – elegant and aloof 0 but a creature steeped in anguish and exhausted by grief, composed one minute before erupting in fury the next, especially when she cradles an urn apparently containing the ashes of her younger brother Orestes, on whom she had pinned all her hopes. It is a disturbing performance but one with a bravura emotional intensity. There is strong support from Diana Quick who suggests Clytemnestra’s bruised majesty, while Jack Lowden is a fresh-faced, youthfully innocent Orestes and Liz White, equally good, as Electra’s far more measured sister, Iphigenia.
What emerges is a powerful, psychologically perceptive study of a spiritually wounded woman, given a further degree of intimacy and intensity by the staging in the round. A truly stunning achievement!
Plays until 20 December2014
Box office: 0844 871 7628Last modified: April 7, 2021