My day job is in the theatre. And when you work in the theatre there’s a strange thing that happens when you go to see a new production of a play that you’ve worked on before. When you do a play, you live with it for 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for months. You know the script inside out, even when you’re not an actor – you know its shape and its rhythms and its flow.
So when you go to see a new production of that play, even if it’s years later, you end up watching it with this peculiar double-vision: the production you once knew inside out laid over the production that’s unfolding in front of you. It’s very hard to sit back and just enjoy it, because your brain is playing a constant game of compare-and-contrast.
I had this experience on Monday when I went to see Sophocles’ Electra, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, at the Old Vic. The double-vision wasn’t as bad as it could have been, since the Old Vic was using a different translation from the one we used, so at least my brain wasn’t supplying all of the words ahead of the actors on stage.
The Old Vic has reconfigured its theatre this season – instead of the usual layout, where all the seats face in the same direction and the acting takes place on a raised stage behind a proscenium arch, they moved the playing area to what would have been the stalls (called the orchestra seats, in North America), turned some of the side seats to face inward, and built a two-level seating structure (complete with extra temporary bathrooms! so smart) on what used to be the stage.
It now looks something like the photo below in layout (although the photo does not include the Electra set, just a bare stage):
I was sitting in the upper level of seating set up on what used to be the stage, so I spent the ten minutes before the show staring up into their lighting bars and fly rail and pointing out various bits of theatre geekery to the elderly couple sitting beside me.
The set was sparse – it has to be when a show is in the round and anything big will block sight-lines from one angle or another – but very effective. One of the entrances to the playing space was done up as the main door to the house, and the stage floor was an open space covered in rock and sand. There was a working tap, a working fire pit, and the trunk of a large dead tree (still rooted and standing upright). I liked the symbolism – water, fire, earth, and I like to think the missing element, air, was made up by the voices of the actors. Having those real elements present onstage brought a grounding in reality to the more heightened moments, like the prayer to Apollo that Clytemnestra performs near the middle of the play – the actors tore open pomegranates as offerings to the god and squeezed the juice over the flames, and the audience could smell it burning, could hear it fizzling. I love it when theatre manages to incorporate more than just two senses.
The music that came and went throughout the play was subtle and helped to set the tone of what was happening onstage, particularly the heightened moments like the prayer. (Although the music did kind of remind me of the soundtrack from the TV show Heroes.)
The thing I missed most from our production of Electra, though, was the singing. Greek tragedy evolved from an older tradition of religious chanting, and many of the speeches in the play would have been sung or chanted by the actors. (No, NOT like musical theatre.) Our director was attempting to recapture this tradition, and I loved the effect.
The performances were solid. These actors made different choices, hit different notes, from the ones I was used to. Some of the differences I found I preferred, other choices I missed. I liked their Orestes quite a lot. I missed the arrogance and the relish with which our Clytemnestra stated her case.
And Electra… I wasn’t sure what I thought about Electra’s performance at first. Until I realized this morning that I was still thinking about it, still examining the character’s motivations and reactions. Trying to understand a character rooted in a culture 2,500 years removed from our own.
Agamemnon’s (Electra’s father) ignoble death is a stain on the family, a stain on Electra, socially and religiously. And, as a woman in that culture, she has no power to repair the dishonour that has been done. Only a man, only Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, can fix it. And so Electra waits, and waits and waits and waits, for Orestes to come back. In the meantime she’s trapped, emotionally stunted by this limbo she lives in.
There was something almost childlike in the way their Electra constantly played with her belt, the hem of her dress, her feet in the sand. (And her constant fidgeting with the belt made her decision to take it off, to give it as an offering to her dead father, much more meaningful. It was clear the belt was almost the only possession she had, clear she was attached to it.)
And there was something in the quality of their Electra’s joy – when Orestes finally revealed his presence to her – that made me realize that she is actually unhinged by this point. She really has been driven insane by her situation.
And at the very end, their Electra curled up with the corpse of her mother, like a child. Her torment has lasted too long. She hasn’t built an adult life. The quest for revenge, the grief for her father, the conflict with her mother – all the defining forces in her life are gone by the end of the play. And she doesn’t know who she is or how to live without them.
These are the thoughts I woke up with this morning. I am, apparently, treating Electra like she’s a real person, which means the performance was, in fact, very, very good.
Tickets are hard to come by, but not impossible. There are seats that are held for under-25s that are then released to the general public a week before the performance. That’s how I got in. So it’s worth stopping in to the box office to ask. Sadly, there are no tickets available via the discount booths in Leicester Square.
Electra runs at the Old Vic through Saturday, December 20th. Monday to Saturday at 7:30pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 3:00pm. Tickets range from £10 – £90.