wed 28/06/2017

Electra, Gate Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Electra, Gate Theatre

Electra, Gate Theatre

Sophocles electrifies in London's Notting Hill

Haunting, passionate, unbowed: Cath Whitefield as Electra© Simon Kane

Certain big dramas can work really well in small places. Sophocles’s revenge play Electra (end of the fifth century BC) is as consequential, and influential, as they come; the Gate Theatre one of the smallest spaces in London. It continually produces sparky, original productions of old and new work. It can only be hoped that an innovative future will be moulded by safe hands after the recently announced departure next January of its current co-directorate, Natalie Abrahami and Carrie Cracknell.

Certain big dramas can work really well in small places. Sophocles’s revenge play Electra (end of the fifth century BC) is as consequential, and influential, as they come; the Gate Theatre one of the smallest spaces in London. It continually produces sparky, original productions of old and new work. It can only be hoped that an innovative future will be moulded by safe hands after the recently announced departure next January of its current co-directorate, Natalie Abrahami and Carrie Cracknell.

The latter’s fresh version of Electra, in a poised and punchy adaptation by Nick Payne, has both the ferocity of a nasty domestic horror story and the dread gravitas of pagan ritual. An audience of about 60 watches in a traverse configuration six actors play out, with utter conviction and tightly spun tension, the vicious inevitability of internecine blood lust precipitated by Zeus’s ravishing of Leda.

“A shudder in the loins engenders there/ The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/ And Agamemnon dead,” wrote WB Yeats in 1923. This Electra reminds us that invasion, war, vengeance and chaotic return from war are as engrained today in human culture as when Homer first told of Paris’s abduction to Troy of Leda’s daughter Helen.

LightingHere, another daughter, Electra - further down the line of revenge - played with haunting, controlled passion by Cath Whitefield, wants her mother Clytemnestra, a brassy, showbiz Madeleine Potter, killed for the murder of her father Agamemnon, and urges on her brother Orestes, Alex Price, to perform the unimaginable deed. The cycle of retribution must be completed. It’s earth’s most terrible story.

Cracknell's figures are post-Helmand, post-Libya even. Guy Hoare’s lighting is inspired, Tom Mills’s music galvanising. Whitefield is consistently unbowed by events, mesmerically intense as Electra. As her sister Chrysothemis, Natasha Broomfield is properly appalled and conflicted. Martin Turner is resonant and stage-filling as Orestes’s protector, Strophius.

The only thing not precisely faithful here to Greek tragedy is seeing Potter done away with, almost stroboscopically, by Price. Neither Sophocles, nor his two fellow tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides, ever depicted murder: a niggle. Payne’s decision to turn the Chorus, impossible in the Gate, into a young-girl version of Electra (alternately Fern Deacon and Yasmin Garrad) is, for instance, brilliant.

Price as Orestes, though he looks like Prince Charming – Clytemnestra’s nemesis is an enraged warrior – is nonetheless compelling to watch and listen to. As are these 70-plus minutes throughout. Whether it’s introducing us to one of the world’s greatest plays or offering a streamlined, 21st-century gloss on one we might already know, the Gate unleashes Sophocles as the relentlessly probing dramatist of ancient, mythic war and its miserable, cyclical consequences.

The Gate unleashes Sophocles as the probing dramatist of mythic war

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