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Review: Kristin Scott Thomas in Electra, Old Vic Theatre

07/10/2014 11:37 BST | Updated 06/12/2014 10:59 GMT

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Electra is not an easy story to love. The tale of a woman, Electra, who plots to murder her mother the Queen of Mycenae, Clytemnestra, and her new lover, the King Aegisthus, for their murder of her father, Agamemnon, is not the most joyful.

Nor is Electra an easy character to love, especially as we come to understand why Clytemnestra murdered her tyrannical husband. But we're not given much opportunity to warm to either the character or the story in this rather heavy-going production.

I know Greek tragedies aren't easy for modern audiences. Everything is very literal in Greek tragedies - people say what they think and mean what they say. Subtext is almost non-existent and the emotional weight is often very, very heavy.

But though this challenge to reinterpret the material can be daunting, it should be a challenge to be relished. Anyone who saw the recent adaptation of Medea at the National Theatre with Helen McCrory directed by Carrie Cracknell will know that bravery can often pay dividends.

Carrie Cracknell brought a lot of innovative ideas to her Medea, including using a new adaptation from Ben Power, incorporating contemporary dance and a score from Goldfrapp.

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Some similar approaches have been taken here. Frank McGuinness has written a new adaptation of Sophocles' Electra and PJ Harvey was brought in for the music but equivalent success has not been achieved.

Too often this production seemed to be played for laughs, which is a bit odd for a Greek tragedy. And in the brief moments of emotional drama, PJ Harvey's heavy music pushes the scene to overwrought melodrama. The music doesn't seem to enhance the production. Silence would've been more profound.

The star attraction is Kristin Scott Thomas in the central role and she certainly is a commanding presence on the stage. Her Electra is full of anger and bile but unfortunately not much else. She is bitingly caustic throughout the show, never showing any doubt over her determination to have her mother killed.

Her angry sarcasm I found a bit exhausting and it robbed the production of much pathos and also robbed her character of much inner turmoil. There is room in the script for variety, such as the scene between her and her softer, kinder sister Chrysothemis as Electra tries to persuade her younger sister to kill their mother. There was an opportunity there for emotional blackmail, for manipulation, but instead the scene is played almost for laughs.

The supporting cast though is excellent. In particular, Diana Quick as Electra's mother brings real internal conflict to her role, pulling on our heart strings a lot more than the main character. You can really feel her wrestling with her conscience and her feelings towards her exiled son who she knows is sworn to take vengeance for the murder of his father. As she pleas to those around her, "A mother never stops loving her children" you really feel it.

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Liz White also impresses as Electra's younger sister, Chrysothemis, caught between the love for her mother and her concern for Electra.

The Old Vic Theatre remains set in the round for this production, as it has been for this year, and this works wonders for this production. Electra is a very intense piece and the intimacy of showing in the round is a real benefit.

Director Ian Rickson maximises this opportunity well and the movement from the actors is great. Watching Electra and her mother circle each other in their scene together was a real highlight, especially with the women of Mycenae weaving in-between them constantly to prevent physical confrontation.

The climax of the play is actually when the production is at its strongest - the melodramatic music is gone, the sarcasm and laughs have evaporated and instead we're faced with the horror of Electra finally getting what she wishes for.

It's a harrowing moment but it's just a shame that the previous 90 minutes were such a struggle to get through. There have been better high-profile adaptations of Greek tragedies this year on the London stage, which puts this in the shade somewhat.

Old Vic Theatre, London to December 20, 2014

Image Credits:

1. Kristin Scott Thomas (Electra) - photo credit Johan Persson

2. Kristin Scott Thomas (Electra) and Jack Lowden (Orestes) - photo credit Johan Persson

3. Kristin Scott Thomas (Electra) - photo credit Johan Persson