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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Review: Elektra: A Play "Without Comfort"


Yanna McIntosh as Elektra. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Elektra, by Sophocles
Translation by Anne Carson

The story: Elektra, princess of the house of Atreus, has been a state of grief and lament since her mother Clytemestra and her lover Agisthos killed her father, King Agamemnon. As she awaits the return of her brother Orestes - smuggled out of the palace as a baby and raised in Phocis - she continues to rage against her mother while a chorus of women and her sister Chrysothemis urge her to moderate her temper. What neither they nor Elektra realizes, is that Orestes has already returned, bent on the revenge Elektra has long wanted.

Elektra, according to actress Fiona Shaw, "is a play without comfort."* Be ready for this when you see it (because see it you should) and be ready to work hard at understanding why.

The staging is brilliant, there is no denying. Even if much of the director's symbolism goes over one's head, one can tell each choice was carefully, deliberately executed - like a surgeon - and that alone is admirable. But symbolism that no one understands is an urn of a different colour.
Ian Lake as Orestes.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
This refers here to only one character - Orestes. It may be that the choices the director made for Ian Lake's role were all to highlight Elektra's strength of character, by showing Orestes' weakness. He lies semi-naked, caressing the broken statue of his father, Agamemnon. He is cradled like an infant by his unspeaking friend Pylades (EB Smith). He remains buried for 40 minutes in a glass coffin  - hiding - while the Chorus, Elektra and Clytemestra come and go around him. He returns dressed as a Hitler Youth for the all-important recognition scene - where aside from recognizing his own sister he should also recognize (through Elektra's overwhelming grief over his false death) that his lack of action has meant for her a life of abuse and near-slavery - yet Elektra cradles him (again, like an infant), and he offers her no comfort at all.

If this is the case, that all these cues are to show a brother's weakness, it is all very subtly done by both director and actor - Mr. Lake's Orestes often looks bemused as if just waking up -  but it may just be too subtle to be readily recognized as such. If this supposition is incorrect, then the symbolism is lost on me I'm afraid. And audiences might have to work a tad harder to understand it than should really be necessary.

It works with Anne Carson's translation though, which has been whittled down to the barest of bones and holds no punches. With its clipped, sparring lines, the text is extremely confrontational and sounds warlike in the mouths of the actors, especially when the Greek tradition of "rhapsode" is included, by which important tales are sung to a rhythm beat out or stomped on the ground, the tables, their chests. It is dynamic, jarring to listen to (especially when they are worked up to a frenzy), and yet uncomfortably compelling.
From left: Laura Condlln as Chrysothemis, Yanna McIntosh as Elektra.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
No one better than Yanna McIntosh as Elektra. The character is consumed by her angry grief, needing to keep alive the moment of her father's murder. Not mad, but nearing it, perhaps. She is brilliant (she looks like a rumpled scientist). She is lucid. She keeps herself apart - physically - from everyone else. She knows herself to be unreasonably sad, and cannot not grieve for her dead father, murdered by her mother. 

Wrapped in her father's sweater, Ms. McIntosh's Elektra is yet warrior-like in her determined grief, yet disarming too - it is painful to see her fetal under a table as her brother's death is described in agonizing detail, and later when she gently berates him her voice is as naked as a newborn. Ms. McIntosh gives a truly magnificent performance.

She is supported by a stunning cast, as well, in particular Laura Condlln as Chrysothemis, who is most likely to draw tears in one particular emotional scene: Ms. Condlln does a perfect 180 as she takes Chrysothemis from fiery elation in her belief that Orestes is with them, to breathless shock - like she's been doused in ice-water - at learning that he is actually dead.
Laura Condlln as Chrysothemis.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Just as effective in a shuddering kind of way is Seana McKenna as a Euro-trash, dragon-lady kind of Clytemestra, complete with bleached vintage bob and Chanel-ish suit. It is the least subtle performance in the production since the audience is given no reason to side with her, but her scenes are deliciously hypocritical and Ms. McKenna makes the most of each moment.
Seana McKenna as Clytemestra.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

A word about the Chorus - seven women, all siding with and trying to reason with Elektra, who wants no reason. They keep themselves out of the action until near the very end when they help Elektra deceive Agisthos and lure him to his doom - any similarity to the ancient Greek Sirens is probably intentional. And they mostly sing their parts,  and since the women who play the Chorus are from the musical company it sounds wonderful, not discordant as can happen when lines are collectively spoken instead.

Jacquelyn French, Barbara Fulton, Monique Lund, Sarah Afful, Ayrin  Mackie
as women of the Chorus. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Oh, there is still lots to be said about how the director and company have interpreted this 2400-year-old-play and made it feel modern and alive, but there is not room here. To tell the truth, I'm still working hard at understanding both this play and this production, but the payoff has been exhilarating.

Elektra continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 29th.

*see Sophocles' Electra in Performance, edited by Francis M. Dunn. M&P, 1996

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