Grief is a hard act to conjure, and sustain for well over an hour centre stage; and Kristin Scott Thomas, trying hard to disguise her dainty frame and fine features with a grubby shift and bedraggled hair, is clearly experimenting with a variety of registers in her interpretation of Sophocles’ Electra at the Old Vic. But her delivery, ranging from read-through to Jewish stand-up, with stop-overs for bewildered child, betrayed (incestuous?) lover, and matricidal harridan leaves a lingering doubt. The transformation scene, switching to unbridled joy, when she realises that Orestes is not, after all, dead is close to being a tear-jerker; until we remember that twin brother is home from exile to take care of business, ie kill mother and stepfather, who despatched their own dad, Agamemnon.
Nonetheless, it’s a tour-de-force from Scott Thomas, whichever way you look at it. And with the focus intensified by the Old Vic’s continuing experiment with in-the-round, and with lines substantially bolstered by Frank McGuinness’s muscular and demotic translation, Ian Rickson’s production is a weighty counter-balance to all that frippery playing out on the neon streets north of the river.
There is a seminal exercise in story-telling mid-way through the brief 100 minutes performance (without interval) when Scott Thomas gives centre stage to Peter Wright as the Servant. He has been guardian to the growing Orestes, and given a brief instruction in the prologue to confound their enemies by announcing that the youngster is dead, constructs an impromptu lengthy description of Orestes’ demise in a chariot race, an account so laced with details and asides as to demonstrate the worth and validity of drama itself. Clytemnestra is convinced; and despite Electra’s contempt for what she sees as her mother’s simulated grief, Jenny Bolt, standing in for Diana Quick in the performance I attended, ably manages to demonstrate the dichotomy between a mother’s sorrow, and relief that Orestes’ promise to kill her and lover Aegisthus cannot be kept.
A 2500 year old play about revenge in a desert kingdom has obvious parallels in a tribal world not far from Ancient Hellas, where tit-for-tat killings are horribly commonplace, albeit women tend to be more the victims than the instigators. Clytemnestra’s relief is all too brief, as is the 11th hour appearance of Aegisthus, merely serving to attend his death. And the denouement offers no solace. Clytemnestra has suggested that Agamemnon deserved to die because the warrior-king had sacrificed his elder daughter, Iphigenia in the quest for Troy. Scott Thomas’s weary gesture at the end is far from triumphal, rather a recognition that there is no one left to die, at least not in Argos. But with tight, intense productions such as this one, Sophocles’ work will continue to have resonance for at least another two and a half millennia.