Reviewed by James Karas
***** (out of 5)
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of Sophocles’ Elektra presents an outstanding example of what it can do at its best. It can reach back to the roots of Western drama and deliver a staging of a great play that is faithful to the spirit of the original and approachable by a modern audience. It is theatre at its best.
The production brings together an outstanding director with a distinguished cast who combines a fine translation of the Greek text with music and dance to produce ancient drama in a form rarely seen anywhere.
Much of the credit must go to Thomas Moschopoulos, the director whom Des McAnuff brought from Greece. He is respectful of the poetry of the text and combines it with song, dance, rhythm and movement and physicality that dispel any idea of Greek tragedy being static or difficult to understand.
Yanna McIntosh dominates the production with a stellar performance as Elektra. Sophocles’ Elektra is a middle-aged woman obsessed with hatred of her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aigisthos, and with an overwhelming desire to avenge the murder of her father by them. McIntosh, hair disheveled, dressed in rags, perhaps somewhat deranged, performs Elektra at such an emotional pitch that it leaves you breathless.
Seana McKenna is Clytemnestra who murdered her husband and shows no remorse. Dressed in a smart suit, she rationalizes her action as revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia at Aulis. McKenna moves from the coolly cerebral to the histrionic in a simply superb performance.
Ian Lake plays Orestes with Peter Hutt as his servant who gains admission to the place by subterfuge. Both perform well as does Graham Abbey as the matter-of-fact Aigisthos.
Laura Condlin as Chrysothemis appears in an elegant pantsuit wearing stylish sunglasses in sharp contrast to her sister Elektra. She is not bothered by her father’s death and is not interested in revenge. A convincing performance by Condlin.
The essential elements of a Greek tragedy that are most frequently botched or absent are the Chorus and the use of music.
There is no instrumental music in this production but Kornilios Selamsis has composed vocal music for the Chorus of Women and most of the characters of the play. The Chorus and the main characters at different times throughout the performance, sing, chant, hum, recite and stamp their feet to produce rhythmic beats. The music may have liturgical and Cretan folksong overtones but it is essentially modern music. It emphasizes or accompanies Anne Carson’s fine translation and is not confined to the choral passages. All the main characters are given vocal passages. The Chorus also dances to the choreography of Amalia Bennett.
The Chorus does not speak in unison (a frequent pitfall for directors) but the members move freely and become fully integrated in the drama. The other pitfall is keeping them bunched together. Moschopoulos does not make that error and keeps the Chorus and the main character moving in this highly physical production.
Three rectangular tables occupy the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre. We see the dismembered parts of a statue on each of them - a head, a torso and the legs. It is a startling image, of course, and no doubt symbolic of the murder of Agamemnon and Elektra’s obsessive search for revenge. The Designer of this concrete counterpart of Elektra’s psychological state is Ellie Papageorgakopoulou.
In addition, the sides of the stage are fenced and they give the appearance of a cage, again a perfect reference to Elektra’s mental state who is imprisoned as much by her mother and her lover as her own hatred and fixation.
The costumes seem to go all over the place from the appropriate to the questionable. The clothes worn by Elektra, Clytemnestra, Chrysothemis and the Old Man (a long black robe) present no issue. The women of the Chorus wear a variety of modern dresses and clothing that need not cause any concern.
My difficulty is with Orestes who wears nothing but white, knee-length underwear in the opening scene. In the final scene, he appears wearing a white short-sleeve shirt, brown short pants and knee socks. His friend, the silent Pylades (E. B. Smith), appears clad in a dark cap and black clothes and looks like a terrorist.
In ancient Athens Elektra was performed at dawn in a large outdoor theatre at the foot of the Acropolis as part of a religious festival. The actors wore masks but we know almost nothing about the music and dance patterns of the Chorus. If Sophocles were to see his Elektra at Stratford, he may not recognize it across twenty-four centuries, but as a man of the theatre, he would no doubt applaud this production because it captures the spirit of his play.
Elektra by Sophocles opened on August 11 and will run in repertory until September 29, 2012 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca