Review: Electra at Bunker Theatre

There’s no doubt about it, we owe the ancient Greek tragedians a lot. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that they taught us how to structure our plays, how to map our juicy plots full of intrigue and betrayal, how to grow universal truths out of the seed of a story. It’s a great thing, then, that we honour our theatrical forefathers’ work by continuing to produce it in 2018. It’s also a mark of just how good the remaining plays are that, some 2000 years later, we’re still compelled by their narratives. Sure, there are always reproductions that don’t hit the mark, but DumbWise’s production of Sophocles’ Electra isn’t one of them.

It’s pretty difficult, considering the long, winding history of reproductions of these kinds of plays to get at anything that feels fresh. The plot itself, predicated on ancient curses and the foibles of some pretty malevolent gods, is not one that immediately lends itself to a thoroughly modern retelling. Queen Clytemnestra has, years before, betrayed her husband, the warrior King Agamemnon, by taking a new lover while he’s away in Troy. Upon Agamemnon’s return, she lures him into the palace to take a bath, where she and her lover slit his throat. Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s children are left to suffer the consequences — Orestes flees, while Electra is forced to stay, waiting for her brother to return and avenge their father’s murder. Not necessarily your average tale for 2018, I think you’ll agree. 

It’s all a question of how far to modernise, and DumbWise have struck just the right tone. They’ve gone for modern dress, a contemporary time (the revolution can’t be televised without televisions, right?), and have recast Clytemnestra’s lover as a wheedling politician, but it’s still tough to get away from the specific sense of time and place inherent in a play about the consequences of human sacrifice to pagan gods. What really works, though, is the rousing, thumping punk-rock score that’s woven through the narrative by an alternative Greek chorus. It’s in those musical moments that gusts of new life blow away the ancient cobwebs. I was wary, at the beginning, of the clunky equation of electric guitars and modernity, but it’s not so simple as that. Instead, it was a reminder that the contemporary can feel as elemental and visceral as the ancient.

As central to the success of this particular Electra as the thrumming bass are the note-perfect performances of Lydia Larson in the titular role, and Sian Martin as Clytemnestra. A civil war rages between these two characters, and Larson and Martin bring nuance to their motivations in a way I’ve often been frustrated not to see in other productions of this same play. Elsewhere, I’ve seen Electra played as a petulant cry-baby, a daddy’s girl who’s afraid to do her own dirty work. Here, Larson imbues Electra with strength and a laser focus on her ultimate goal to join with her brother to murder her mother. She cannot do it alone, she knows that, and so she waits. Martin brings to Clytemnestra less of the regal hubris that other actors have fallen foul to in this role and much more humanity. Her daughter believes she killed her husband to make the way clear for her lover, but that’s not the whole picture. There’s a sadness and a weariness to Martin’s Queen that makes the final moments all the more of a punch to the gut.

DumbWise’s Electra left me with a bad taste in my mouth for all of the right reasons. Although the musical interludes did make the performance drag on a little — what could have been a 90-minute play became instead 2 hours 30 — overall it was an exhilarating and often moving performance that stayed true to the kernel of the play while presenting an accessible retelling for a modern audience. 

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Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli