Sunday, 14 December 2014

Review of Electra by Sophocles with Kristin Scott Thomas

Impressed by the prowess of Kristin Scott Thomas as a film actress not only in The English Patient, but particularly in her French language films, I wanted to see her in the flesh, as Electra in Sophocles Greek revenge tragedy at The Old Vic, in London. The play was penned over 2400 years ago, in line with the dramatic unities. Seeing live Greek drama was an even greater incentive. I found it so modern and fit for the stage that I could not see much difference between this ancient Greek drama and episodes of RAI’s detective series Montalbano, or Agatha Christie’s TV plots.

Greek dramatic unities require that the drama takes the same amount of time on stage as the action (90 mins). Any killings must happen off stage. The intention is to build up the tension to the point of catharsis. Did it work? Yes. I felt the claustrophobia of Electra’s passionate powerlessness, her imprisonment, her teetering hysteria and her lack of choices. Therapeutically, Scott Thomas re-enacted for me, personally, feelings of hanging on during years of a long debilitating illness endured with no money, no strength and no options, sometimes surrounded by people telling me things were “not so” (compromise).

The play, Electra, harks back the the time when matriarchal rule of the ancient world, replaced by the subsequent epic patriarchy of the Trojan Wars, was still a cultural memory. The power of women was a possibility. In epic Greece, now an age of blood feuds, the head of the household had ownership rights and right of life and death over all its members, a situation which soon proved inadequate. Justice meted out at the personal level is not impartial, or without personal consequence due to human fallenness, conscience and even remorse. Thus the developing Greek state took over the entire administration of the justice system from the family. The uneven votes of its judges could deliver mercy, in mitigating circumstances.

There are a few mitigating circumstances in this play: Agamemnon, King of Argos, has led the Greek army to victory at Troy. Before sailing, he sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia to the gods when, in fact, this act was probably the pagan duty of Menelaus, who has two children. He was the husband of stolen Helen. This action is used by his wife Clytemnestra, who has taken a lover during his ten years in Troy, as an excuse (upon which Electra does not comment) for murdering her husband, marrying her lover, and installing herself and him on the throne. Her daughters by Agamemnon, including Electra, suffer house imprisonment as high class servants. They are refused marriage due to the threat of their bloodline. Passionate Electra ages fast and crawls in the dust, eaten by grief, hatred of her mother and her desire for revenge for her father (the source of the “Electra complex”). Her brother Orestes escapes and grows up elsewhere. Electra pins all her hopes on his return as family avenger

Scott Thomas plays Electra completely without make-up, with wispy, unkempt hair, as a woman on the verge of nervous and emotional collapse. For someone often regarded as beautiful, even at 54, it is quite a shock - but admirably fitting for a character who is clinging to the idea of justice, in the face of soft and calm compromise, symbolised by her sister, who advises patience, realistic assessment of odds of the success, and lying low.

This translation of Sophocles by Frank McGuinness is in the modern colloquial tongue. In contrast to regal and apparently sane Diana Quick (Clytemnestra), Scott Thomas delivers her lines matter-of-factly, as if they were dialogue for a film script. This creates a kind of mismatch with her stage fellows’ more theatrical deliveries and half-convinced me that film is Scott's real forte in spite of her real stage presence and dramatic energy.

For me as a Christian, the issue of revenge is pertinent. Christians must not seek personal revenge, but allow the State to pursue it on behalf of God, something that lies heavy on Hamlet, who lacks a fiery sister to gear him to act in blood. It was into this ancient world, in which Electra was playing at the various amphitheatres of the Hellenistic world, that Jesus Christ first preached non-retaliation.

The pagan Delphic Oracle was a reminder of the vanished matriarchy of ancient Greece. Its female 'Python' tells Orestes not to hack 'blood revenge' on Clytemnestra but to find his revenge in roundabout ways (though Python does not explain this route to him). Meeting face-to-face with the fiery, skeletal Electra who is over-full of virago-like action, Orestes changes his mind. Lady MacBeth-like, she winds his courage to do the bloody deed. The body of Clytemnestra is duly dumped on stage by Orestes. Suddenly, we recall that blood is not the solution, as Electra, inspite of her burning hatred for her mother embraces it : this was her only mother, after all. Orestes, we recall is thereafter pursued by The Furies. We do not know what happens to his sister. One feels Electra is near the end of sane life, anyway.

The best for me was contemplating the confrontation between Electra’s desire to act against evil acts and people, to purify the body of the State - and the ‘useless’ spirit of worldly compromise with power, patience, waiting on better circumstances (symbolised by her sister). It reminds one of compromises of the patriarchal state and Church and the need for women (and men) to ‘burn bright’ holding uncompromisingly on to God’s truth, standards and justice, in the face of complacency. Scott Thomas delivers, via Electra, a magnificent reminder that we must not internally compromise with evil, but keep passionately interested in reasserting God’s purity and justice. Subject to Christ, we must use spiritual swords rather than real swords, leaving justice to the impartial law, for which we must also be thankful.

This production of Electra would convert anyone to Sophocles and Greek drama. For the new converted, film star Juliette Binoche (the nurse in “The English Patient”) is playing “Antigone” at the same theatre, in a few months time....

Review of “Electra” from The Independent

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