If you’re looking to spend a chilly afternoon whiling away the shorter days in the warmth of a playhouse, you could do a lot worse than to check out Electra at The Old Vic. In the relatively short duration of the play, Kristin Scott Thomas succeeds in creating a memorable title character; Electra runs at one hour and forty minutes with no interval, and my goodness does Scott Thomas run with it. Delivering a performance that is as much a study in fever-pitch intensity as it is steely endurance Scott Thomas well and truly steals the show, despite the handful of other actors by whom she is joined on stage.
Electra is the story of one woman’s suffering at the hands of her ‘evil’ mother and her lover, who together have murdered Electra’s father Agamemnon. Burning with an intense desire for revenge, but being powerless to carry this out, Electra nurtures her rage as a companion. The pain felt by Electra is beautifully conveyed by Scott Thomas, who wrings her hands and twists her tunic until it seems one or the other will disintegrate. Hopping from side to side and spitting vitriol at those who oppose her, or attempt to placate her grief, Electra stands alone in her desire to seek revenge on her father’s wrong-doers. That is until her long lost younger brother, Orestes, returns to claim what is his. The scene where the siblings are reunited is palpably touching, to the point of pricking the eyes with tears.
The staging is simple but functional. The stark sandstone walls of the home now belonging to Agamemnon’s usurpers tower high into the rafters, and are a formidable prison for the bedraggled wisp of a woman that is Electra. Scott Thomas’ tatty garb continues the theme of emotional rawness and the twisted, naked tree symbolises a life stunted by the arid surroundings. Only Electra’s mother and sister, Clytemnestra and Chrysothemis respectively, contrast this barren environment. The pair are adorned in silky garments, jewels woven into their long locks of hair, even stretching to the extravagance of sandals in contrast to Electra’s bare and bloody feet. It is clear who the audience is supposed to perceive as profiting from another’s death, and indeed neither woman’s presence does anything to mollify Electra’s temper.
If there is one critique to be made, it is the sometimes over-emphasis of Scott Thomas on the emotions that churn Electra’s insides. This leads to a slip into dangerously comic territory: the delivery of certain lines border on adolescent melodrama and the titters of laughter that ripple through the theatre are uncomfortable. Having said that, this occasional excess of enthusiasm does not detract from the play as a whole. With just a few weeks left until the play’s close, Electra tickets will no doubt be hot property. If you’re thinking of seeing a play this winter, make it this one.