FringeReview UK 2018
John Ward writes and directs Dumbwise’s Electra. It’s a conflation of Sophocles’ and Euripides’ versions. The Bunker’s intimate space allows the simple positioning of a chair and choreography in the seven-strong ensemble. It’s enveloped in Rachel Drazek’s movement, Mark Conway’s fight direction, with David Hewson’s striking score and music direction. Sherry Coenan’s smoky lighting, strikes out tenebrous woods with the glare of a palace coup. Till March 24th.
In the current spate of Greek tragedy as rock spectacle – as with the Ovalhouse’s powerful Medea Electronica (by Mella Faye) – John Ward’s version of Electra is certainly as galvanising as any. He also steers this Dumbwise production, of which he’s artistic director.
The first thing to say is go and see this. It’s exciting, viscerally acted and played, and recreates the spirit of the original in ways we’re just rediscovering. And there’s some seriously good dramaturgy.
Particularly since the introduction of aulos and percussion in the astonishing Aeschylus Suppliants that threaded in David Greig’s version from Edinburgh’s Traverse to the Young Vic – each time locally sourcing a chorus – you feel Greek drama’s ground has shifted.
The Bunker’s intimate space allows the simple positioning of a chair and quite often a choreography of bouncing bodies in the seven-strong ensemble (Rachel Drazek’s movement, Mark Conway’s fight direction), where all pound the two drums to the side of an elemental sandpit, and most wield a musical instrument in David Hewson’s striking score and music direction. Samuel Martin’s violin-playing might be singled out, but it’s a virtuoso work-out all round, under Sherry Coenan’s smoky lighting, striking out tenebrous woods with the glare of a palace coup.
Unlike Faye, or Greig (whose translation startles because faithful), Ward devises a full-length play with interval, something Greek tragedy tends to avoid. But then this is a complete re-ordering of two Electras with insertion of new scenes and removal of key characters like Orestes’ Tutor. Ward takes some of the chronology, though it’s less any version than a new play. That has to be right.
It’s worth pointing up what Ward does, and it’s not pedantic, since he’s taken trouble and you’ll be sitting through quite a long though never overlong production. Though billed initially as a version by Sophocles, Ward’s working-out is heralded as a kind of Euripides/Sophocles collaboration, conflating elements of both plays. The abruptness of Sophocles’ original, last seen at the Old Vic, is abandoned. That’s the one we know best. It’s Euripides who supplies a shepherd to whom Electra’s married off (though it’s unconsummated), and some of the realistic detail.
Electra’s younger in the Euripides too, and that’s suggested here, though still old enough to smuggle out her baby brother as in the Sophocles (this is a bit wobbly, she might be a precocious six-year old, since we do get they’re both young, back with Euripides!).
But here in Ward Euripides’ creeping sympathy for the victims of vengeance gets short shrift. He’s back with Sophocles and indeed Aeschylus (where Electra doesn’t feature much anyway). Some of the wooded scenes including Aegisthus’ scene at Agamemnon’s tomb are from Euripides by the way; Ward didn’t invent them. Orestes’ tutor is there in both versions but is cut out here. We should know that Electra is finally married off to Orestes’ friend Plyades in Euripides, as Orestes disappears for good to get absolution. No he’s not here as a consolation prize either.
And here’s a surprise Ward doesn’t follow up because of what he decides: Clytemnestra in Euripides rushes out to her fate in the excitement of Electra presenting her with a grandchild via her peasant famer husband who out of deference hasn’t laid a finger on her – Ward adopts that part, but here the poor man gets clobbered unconscious by Orestes. Ward simply doesn’t believe in a loyal peasantry! You can’t help thinking that Euripides is essentially more modern than Ward, who sticks with a purer, steelier vengeance.
What he does keep though is a sense of the original Greek, a rapid-fire versification and adding rather Homeric imagery, such as the choric opening (sort of taken from Euripides’ peasant farmer’s intro) where ‘Amber stripes rain down/Through a purple pitchless night’. Florid but effective. Ward’s clearly take standard trope as we might imagine – Greek plays open with chorus, right? – and applies them. in fact that blunts the differences and sharp innovations of Sophocles. What we get in return is an ensemble-led feel to a piece that still boasts Electra as fount and ultimately arbiter.
As avenger of her father Agamemnon’s murder she not only keep the flame but discomfits the palace who fear he hungry waiting for Orestes as instrument of her revenge isn’t idle.
Ward sets the work in a present-day surveillance world of bugged hovels (the shepherd’s hut whom Electra’s forced to marry) or scrutiny of Clytemnestra the murderous queen allows a Royal TV intimate Q&A. In it her full resentment and suppressed rage of her husband’s sacrifice of their eldest daughter Iphigenia is played out. Here Ward shows with graphic recall of the ‘slitting of her white throat’ where she’s been tricked on board ship (not a terrified knowing sacrifice). Clytemnestra’s motives for killing Agamemnon aren’t sexual replacement with Aegisthus, though he’s certainly a consolation prize and perhaps no more.
Because of the insertion of Host and Advisors too some characters where they survive are give vestigial existences. Megan Leigh Mason’s sister Chrys is a stub of a part who vanishes, since she has to be not only that TV Host but Queens’ advisor, all in differing garb, all effectively wrought and striking enough in Leigh Mason’s different registers: chilly and hieratic as the QA, breezily snappy as Host, repining as Chrys. The loss of Chrys though is lamentable; her compromises Electra’s absolutes.
Electra’s own doleful entrance is however powerful and in this play she’s more than front and centre: she’s given amplitude to equivocate and decide, and ultimately it’s her voice that commands in a clever re-telling of what happens after a coup.
Ward suggests a state where Sian Martin’s purring, vocally-toned Clytemnestra superbly steals much of the show she’s in, Ward too has decided the fate of Matt Brewer’s edgily seedy, reach-me–down dictator Aegisthus is less crucial than Clytemnestra and the timing of their fates (in both the originals) are reversed: Martin’s role is expanded in interviews where her sibilance is pushed neatly by Leigh Martin as the not-quite-obsequious interviewer. And there’s a wonderfully realized working out of Oedipal angst in Orestes when confronting his mother in a far longer stand-off and manipulation than we’re used to.
It’s really Clytemnestra versus Electra and Martin and Larson scorch stripes off each other: their working on Orestes is like the fight of an bleated Oedipus bid versus a sister who’s as much in love with the thought of Orestes as avenger and comforter as she is with her murdered father. There’s also the sue of a chorus to help speed a revolution by the suffering people of Argos, who both wish for Orestes’ return and then confusingly intend to abjure royalty altogether: this however only emerges at the end.
Dario Coates makes an appealingly ardent Orestes, emerging as a prince but without court manners and the chilly resolve Electra possesses: he’s not had to endure Clytemnestra and her bed-mate. Vocally he’s strong too. Brewer’s Aegisthus too is attractively shifty, though Dean Graham’s voice as King’s Advisor and chorus is truly memorable: burnished, dangerous, impressively authoritative. In another production he might have been a steely tutor. As farmer Samuel Martin has slightly less to do – he’s particularly active in the chorus – though he’s a mesmersing fiddle player.
Lydia Larson’s Electra is an almost emphatically remorseless reading though Larson allows despair, brief tenderness and vulnerability full play in the new scenes Ward devises, particularly at the nadir of her fortunes in the shepherd’s hut which closes the first act. Like Leigh Mason she’s given a rather ungrateful one-night intensity to pitch (Leigh Mason only in the chorus) but enjoys little relief since she’s cresting one role with unrelieved intensity.
It’s important that Electra is remorseless, and here too Ward follows through in her exhorting Orestes to kill Clytemnestra. Orestes feels he has a mandate to kill Aegisthus but has asked Apollo and not been answered about Clytemnestra. It’s a completely new departure, psychologically convincing and throws up the difference in the way their different lives have shaped their notions of revenge; and their different characters.
It’s the recognition scene between the two when they finally reveal themselves however that’s unaltered most, and is the most breath-taking, as it must be. Larson and Coates rise to their most impassioned and tender.
Larson shows mettle at the end too. A section just preceding what’s now her finale speech is cut in production, where the agon of revolutionary sentiment is pressed up against Electra. It’s a new situation and in practice it’s been deemed best to cut. It does though show how the abrupt original is abandoned just as the opening is and how the revolution Orestes is part of is turned on its head. There are several ways of reading Electra’s final speech too; her position is ambiguous, but then so is that of the contemporary revolution which ash no desire to reinstall royalty.
This is a fascinating rewrite, an expansion and explication of what constitutes one of the most extraordinary Sophocles plays shot through with Euripides’ realism, detail and humanity – though much of this is rejected because of how Ward wants his protagonist Electra to conclude. Ward seeks to ground the elemental and sometimes plain inexplicable in contemporary terms. He succeeds by and large with his fine verse-writing, ingenious and convincing psychology, and excellent cast; not to mention the catchy, memorable score and his own mostly adroit direction. There are a few inevitable longeurs, and the whole gradual watch-spring of Greek drama wound up is inevitably lost in discrete episodes and a certain over-endowment of reasoning-out. Ward’s nods to WMDs and much else isn’t too obtrusive; shrewdly he doesn’t attempt to clutter the paly with contemporanity and thus date it immediately.
As a gifted exploration of Electra’s themes and a transposition of them to 21st century values, this is as exhaustive, detailed and convincing as you’d wish. And the superb Larson, the wonderfully insinuating Martin, the fresh Coates, Graham’s tremendous presence, Brewer in his crumbling control, Leigh Mason in her finite variety, and Samuel Martin in his musicianship and balletic use of burliness, should all come away with reputations enhanced. But if you missed Kristin Scott Thomas’s traversal of the Sophocles at the Old Vic in 2014, try to see the originals of either too – whenever they threaten to return.