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Theatre review: Electra 
18th-Apr-2011 09:57 pm
I was intrigued to see why outgoing (aren't they all at the moment?) Artistic Director of the Gate Carrie Cracknell was revisiting Electra so soon, having put on a free but very polished production of the same play only last summer. That production has now been retrospectively named the "Young Vic workshop production" which isn't quite how it was presented at the time but whatever - with some of the same creatives and a couple of shared themes we can, I suppose, see last year's show in that light although here Cracknell is using a different version of Sophocles' text (by Nick Payne) and has approached the work a lot more radically this time. Another reason for wanting to see the new version was in the cast, and Being Human fans will understand it: TV shows sometimes briefly feature a character in a relatively small role, who grabs the fans' imagination to an unexpected extent, and years later remains almost as popular as the series regulars. The Being Human fans will already know who I'm talking about:

It is of course Alex Price aka Gilbert from Series 1 (pictured here with Madeleine Potter as Clytemnestra.)

Lots of preamble but on to the review and I was very glad I made the trip. Straight away one of the stars of the show is Holly Waddington's set - she's created a very claustrophobic, low-ceilinged traverse of shiny black tiles. Although still nominally set outside the palace, the feel is of being in one of the long corridors of what we're told at the start is a labyrinthine building. As the strip lights go off one at a time, the show starts as it means to go on with the feel of a horror movie - this is Greek tragedy as SAW (although in fact much less grisly than the violence warnings in the foyer would have you believe.) Payne's translation has a contemporary, conversational feel that feeds into the intimate tone - this is much more a family drama than a grand political story. Cracknell takes quite a lot of liberties with the formal structure of Greek theatre: She cuts a lot of text, inserting dreamlike movement sequences and bringing the murder onstage. Most notably she's also replaced the Chorus with a ghostly vision of the younger Electra (Fern Deacon in tonight's performance) who converses with her older self. The show plays out as a series of dialogues going over the different perspectives of the murder of Agamemnon - as Clytemnestra points out, it was in itself revenge for Iphigenia, and what Electra wants is essentially a continuation of the cycle of violence.

Cath Whitefield is fantastic in the title role; for the first half she's like a coiled spring, dangerously suppressing her hatred until the news of her brother's supposed death makes her explode in grief and rather deranged fury. Madeleine Potter effectively brings forward the mother's point of view and Price is in full-on brooding mode as Orestes. Evidently taking makeup tips from last year's RSC season, they've given him a neck tattoo - if, as I suspect, it was meant to be of a snake, that's a rather lovely callback to Clytemnestra's dream. Natasha Broomfield's Chrysothemis was the only character I found a bit vaguely defined - possibly the text cuts may have had something to do with this as I enjoyed her actual performance. From last year's workshop version, the most obvious thing to survive is Electra smashing the floor tiles to bury herself with grief over Orestes' "death," a conceit that works even better in this small space (the whole place feels a bit like a mausoleum anyway.) I also can't review this without mentioning Guy Hoare's lighting, which makes an enormous contribution to the mood and features large patches of darkness from which characters make some of their entrances. This is Greek tragedy with a real contemporary stamp on it and a strong contender for when I come to put together my Hit List at the end of the year.

Electra by Sophocles in a version by Nick Payne is booking until the 14th of May at the Gate Theatre.
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