‘What harm can it do to die in words?” asks Orestes, before faking his own demise in a fiery chariot crash early in Elektra. It’s a rhetorical question, but the answer is: plenty.
The harm that words can and do inflict is the focus of Sophocles’s troubling play about the run-up to Orestes’s revenge murders of his father-killing mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aigisthos.
Orestes, a man of action, is not the main character. His sister Elektra, who kills with words rather than dies in them, is.
Elektra causes all kinds of trouble for herself and others with her livid language – cursing her mother and stepfather to all who will hear and mourning her late father at high volume, despite threats of imprisonment or worse.
In visiting Greek director Thomas Moschopoulos’s fine production at Stratford, Elektra is played by Yanna McIntosh in oversized sweater and glasses, looking like a grad student off her antidepressants. She stalks the courtyard outside of the palace armed with a black sharpie that she keeps tucked in her sock like a switchblade.
As she outlines the case against her mother, she whips out that marker and scrawls phrases such as “butchering raw-blood death” – from Canadian poet Anne Carson’s vivid translation – on three illuminated tables that form the spine of Ellie Papageorgakopoulou’s set.
(A statue of Apollo, the deity that Elektra and Clytemnestra both hope is on their side, lies dissected on these tables, as if the god of order is awaiting an operation to be put back together again.)
In a director’s note, Moschopoulos sets out what he calls the three essential elements of ancient Greek tragedy: song, rhythmical recitation and rhetorical debate.
His Elektra contains all three in equal measure: a chorus of seven women singing most of their lines to compelling melodies composed by Kornilios Selamsis; chunks of dialogue that are delivered almost as rap as the actors thump out a beat on hard surfaces or own bodies; and vigorous argumentation.
Trained in a country that still regards Bernard Shaw as a great dramatist, naturally the cast does a wonderful job with the epic faceoffs between characters.
The scenes between Elektra and her reasonable, compromise-seeking sister Chrysothemis (Laura Condlln), are perfectly played. The two actors seem like real siblings as they come together and push apart over how to deal with being ruled by the couple who killed their father.
The most exciting encounter, however, is between Elektra and Seana McKenna’s droll, sunglasses-masked Clytemnestra. Stepping from table to table with the help of servants, this monster mother almost convinces us of the righteousness of her murder of her husband (who, after all, sacrificed another daughter of hers), until she hears of Orestes’s faked death and dissolves into a puddle of triumphant, relieved glee.
(Her lover Aigisthos is equally unpleasant in a brief cameo, played by a wonderfully smug, then snivelling Graham Abbey.)
The musical elements of Moschopoulos’s production are also well-executed, though they do begin to feel repetitive after a while and draw the play out a little longer than necessary. The recitations, however, are surprisingly riveting – particularly those delivered by Peter Hutt as Orestes’s wry tutor (dressed, oddly, like Neo from The Matrix). Telling the story of the imaginary chariot race that Orestes supposedly died in while tapping his cane on the floor, it’s as thrilling as watching the actual carnage might be.
Carson’s translation also helps this Elektra resonate. It’s rigorous but very actable, violently poetic but not above the occasional joke (“this unique Greek”) or injection of contemporary irony (“If that is your attitude, then that is your attitude.”).
As for McIntosh, Elektra is a perfect role for the often emotionally aloof actress. She stews in her character’s poisonous self-righteousness, tempered by a certain self-awareness. “I ask this one thing: Let me go mad in my own way,” she says, and watching her do so, her descent is both relatable and revolting.
Elektra is, ultimately, a play I find tremendously disturbing. Unlike in the more liberal-minded ancient plays about that tell this story written by Aeschylus and Euripides, Sophocles does not seem to mind the matricide at the climax. Indeed, he celebrates it.
His Orestes does not hesitate or question his bloody deeds – he is the anti-Hamlet, seeking justice and revenge for the death of his father and viewing those two concepts as interchangeable. (Indeed, the Greek word “dike” is the same for justice and revenge.)
Moschopoulos waters down this impression slightly – Ian Lake’s Orestes is often carried around as an overgrown baby, and there are hints that he is headed towards madness – but he doesn’t fully dilute it. His Elektra makes an interesting dramatic counterpoint to Des McAnuff’s ambiguous Henry V. As one character says, “There is war in women, too.”