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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
ELECTRA
at the Old Vic

RETALITORY OFFSPRING
By KATE BASSETT

  Kristin Scott Thomas/ Ph: Johan Persson

So, when do we get to see Kristin Scott Thomas as Hamlet? Gender-switching productions of Shakespeare are currently in vogue in the UK. The well-known actress Maxine Peake is playing the aforementioned royal Dane at Manchester's aptly named Royal Exchange Theatre, and an all-female cast is re-envisaging Henry IV for the Donmar in London.
 
At the Old Vic, meanwhile, Scott Thomas makes Electra, in Sophocles' Ancient Greek revenge drama, look like a forerunner of the agonized Prince of Denmark, fascinatingly akin to him. Frank McGuinness' unostentatious, absorbing translation brings out the parallels, combined with Scott Thomas' rivetingly naturalistic performance.
 
Directed by Ian Rickson with superb acumen, Scott Thomas is grieving obsessively for her murdered soldier-father, King Agamemnon. Clasping and poring over a picture of him, she wishes his spirit would rise from the grave. Manifesting signs of more than one proto-Freudian complex, she yearns for the return of her long-lost brother Orestes, is repelled by her murderous stepfather and mother’s marriage bed, and is talking about retaliation.
 
Bone-thin and barefoot, she dashes out onto the front steps of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra’s palace, which is hewn from a chalky rock face. Her Electra ensconces herself there, in self-imposed exile, and later curls up, poignantly weeping, on the arid earth under a blasted tree. Her skinny flat-chestedness has a touch of severely arrested adolescence about it. With her cropped hair unkempt at the back, she tugs at her ragged embroidered smock, hugging it round her. Rickson's production (designed by Mark Thompson) features timeless ethnic costumes with some modern-era touches. Three female attendants, serving as Electra's confidantes, wear headscarves and sandals that evoke the Eastern Mediterranean region (anywhere from Greece to Bulgaria, Turkey or Jordan).
 
What’s thrilling is Scott Thomas' vibrant emotional immediacy. No trace of stiffly archaic speechifying here. Her words feel fiercely alive, mercurially flecked with stubbornness and uppity arrogance, as well as with fury and desperation. The Old Vic’s in-the-round configuration adds to the intimacy and intensity. Tyrone Huggins’ deep-voiced Aegisthus and Diana Rigg’s Clytemnestra, in matriarchal silken finery, are slightly more theatrical and grandiose. But a persistent vein of maternal love subtly runs beneath Rigg's tough rebukes and her desire to crush the threat of father-avenging offspring.
 
Sophocles’ narrative twists and moral arguments are brilliantly taut. Age has not withered them. Tragedy and comedy are startlingly interwoven as well, when Jack Lowden’s Orestes turns up incognito. Still only 24 but surely destined for greatness, Lowden is astonishingly a match for Scott Thomas. His Orestes is an innocent-looking lanky youth with an emotional journey that’s fraught with nuanced, mixed emotions. His tenderness is heartbreaking – reunited with his sister, wrapping her in his arms – even as he steels himself for butchery, distractedly spinning a dagger in his hand.
 
This gives the National Theatre’s recent  Medea a run for its money, and it deserves a Broadway transfer. Electrifying.
 
 

Kate Bassett is a theatre critic who writes for The Times of London.

 


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