PITY AND TERROR IN A HANDFUL OF DUST
There’s a great tall door, portal of the ancient house of Atreus; a blighted tree, a votive lantern, a dusty arena. Like Greeks two thousand years ago, we are a ring of witnesses to the shattering power of unappeasable sorrow and anger.
Electra herself is a shock, from her first paces onto the dusty court before the door. Kristin Scott Thomas, free at last from all those cool sophisticated film roles, is gaunt, lank, ragged, primitive, riven with anger and grief at the murder of her father Agamemnon by his wife and her lover Aegisthus. At first you think of her as a Hamlet: grieving a father and complicatedly enraged at a mother’s sharing a bed with his murderer. But Hamlet is a fretful modern in comparison, this raw Sophoclean emotion is something different: the irredeemiable, irreconciliable pre-Christian ethic of the blood feud, the unforgiving need for “the dead to live again, draining the blood of the living”.
The violence of emotion, though, is perennial, recognizable and terrifying: Kristin Scott Thomas roams and flickers like a dusty pillar of flame, distracted , angry, explosive, hurling herself to the ground in rage or grief, a tiny figure becoming the purest human distillation of all rage and misery. She speaks of her servitude in the usurped house, but is self-enslaved by her uncompromising rage ; for her sister Chrysothemis ,obediently resigned ,steps on blooming and groomed by comparison, and recoils from the injunction to murder with the helpless words “sometimes being right is wrong” .
Frank McGuinness adaptation of the old text is strong, simple, unadorned. Peter Wight as the loyal servant is impressive, delivering the long – fictional – account of Orestes‘ death in a chariot race with the vivid intensity of a Formula One disaster report; the chorus of women underline and counterpoint the central ferocious performance of Electra herself. Ian Rickson’s direction , however, and the utter truthfulness of Scott Thomas’ performance, allow this wrought-up intensity to ease three or four times in the hundred tense minutes of the play, to something which allows almost a proper laugh, an ironic moment: Chrysothemis’ recoil, Clytemnestra’s maternal impatience, Electra’s own screams and leaps of intensity when Orestes, the lost little brother, reveals that he is alive and there to take vengeance.
Ah, Clytemnestra! Another face of the female in Sophoclean tragedy: we have the headlong passionate young women,Antigone and Electra; but also the womanly, the pragmatic: vengeful infanticidal Medea and , here, the political compromiser: the damaged weigher-up of options, who knows life must move on and hopes to evade any extremism of curse. She argues that after the killing of her daughter Iphigenia and his return with Cassandra, Agamemnon had to die. “I killed him, but I did not act alone. Justice killed him, too”.
Diana Quick gives the role a bitter humanity: she glides out of the great door at first serene and impatient, a menacing matriarch, a queen. A sleepless queen though, and a thwarted mother riven with conflict. Her exchanges with Electra are beautifully drawn: half exasperated parent, half guilty to be glad of the supposed death of her son, who if he returned would have to kill her. “You do not hate your children, no matter how they treat you”.
The story unreels: Orestes is back, blood flows offstage, and the huge door opens fully at last, gaping into darkness. A final gesture by Electra, unexpected, human and hopeless. brings a lump to the throat.