The Old Vic, London
Until December 20
★★★★ (out of 5)
THE opening night of Sophocles’ Electra had a few well regarded actors in the audience as well as in the cast.
The distinguished Bill Nighy and Irish actor Andrew Scott, best known for playing the villainous Moriarty in the BBC’s unequalled Sherlock, took their seats amongst the hushed crowd to watch the classic play in the round at London’s Old Vic Theatre.
Electra, played by Kristin Scott Thomas (in her Old Vic debut) is regarded as Sophocles’ best character drama and with themes of bereavement, isolation and thirst for revenge has earned her the nickname ‘the female Hamlet’.
This time Sophocles’ tragedy has an Irish twist.
UCD’s Frank McGuiness is an acclaimed playwright with The Factory Girls and Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme in his list of credits, but the Dubliner is also known internationally as a translator of the classics and that’s what he does with great effect here.
McGuiness’ Electra turns out (after a good deal of traditional Greek tragi-drama and shouting at the beginning) to be hugely gripping and entertaining.
Much of this is down to Scott Thomas, who although diminutive, deliberately gaunt and looking very much in need of a good meal is captivating. You can’t peel your eyes away from her. While everyone else is madly gesturing with their hands, her every shrug, glimpse and lick of her lips is perfectly timed. She’s mesmerising and a brilliant physical presence on stage.
A few things worthy of individual praise, other than KST herself and the influences of ex-Royal Court director Ian Rickson are the staging — The Old Vic in the round is something special, there is never a dull moment and the play’s one hour and 40minutes speeds by.
Also, the sparse but chilling music by PJ Harvey deserves an ovation of its own. It does as much to create a tension and foreboding as any of the actors.
Another nice touch for the Irish is the unexpected Northern Irish accent of Belfast actress Julia Dearden (unexpected in a play set in Mycenae around 410 BCE that is), but the way all the cast flip in and out of naturalistic speech really works to bring the ancient themes of justice and expedience; revenge and dishonour to life for a modern audience.
A criticism, if there was to be one, is that while the comic timing and humour that McGuiness and Scott Thomas inject wins the audience, maybe it’s at the expense of the real heart of the tragic character play.
KST’s Electra is manic, mad, bi-polar and maybe that lessens our understanding of her isolation, deprivation — the things that drive her need for revenge.
At one early point of the play, while berating her sister for her cowardice Electra asks “if the dead feel pleasure?” If they do, I wonder if Sophocles would be pleased?
Electra at The Old Vic, The Cut, London until December 20. Monday – Saturday 7.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday 3pm. Box Office: 0844 871 7628. Tickets from £10 - £55.