Writer: and Director John Ward
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Some of our most famous and long-lasting tales are all about revenge – somehow in some form, humanity clings to the idea of natural justice. We want to know that a bad deed won’t go unpunished and that someone will make it their crusade to avenge the wronged. One of the most enduring of these stories is that of Electra and Orestes, the children of Greek King Agamemnon who wait 20 years to settle a score with their father’s killers.
In a new version of Euripides / Sophocles well-known tale, writer and director John Ward has given both the text and the setting a modern edge and peppered it with references to a cheated generation, fake news and the politics of image. But the essential story remains the same; Desperate to remove her mother Clytemnestra and step-father Aegisthus from the throne, Electra has denounced the Gods and, certain he is still alive, waits for the return of her brother Orestes who she hasn’t seen since he was a baby. As the monarchs take steps to deal with their problem daughter, a young messenger arrives in the city bringing tragedy in his wake.
The Bunker Theatre’s updated version of Electra is a consciously modern take that uses live music and sound to underscore the drama and emotion of the characters. Describing itself as having a ‘punk-rock score’ most of the larger musical set pieces only take place at the start and end of each half, but in between there’s plenty of interesting and effectively heightened mood created largely using drums, electric guitars and a violin. This approach is one of Electra’s most interesting and successful elements.
Ward’s text also brings out key themes that will resonate with its predominantly millennial audience, including the use of PR teams to present a picture of monarchy in touch with its people, and the fluidity of facts where, as the old saying goes, “history is written by the victors.” Equally effective are the rallying calls to arms which seem to speak for a whole generation as Dean Graham (one of three performing as the Chorus) stokes the flames with a rousing speech about the people being abandoned and crushed by the elite.
But at almost two hours and 45 minutes, many scenes overshoot their purpose, merely repeating the same information in several ways or taking too long to get to the point, slowing down the pace considerably in both Acts. No one exactly sweeps to their revenge and, with a focus on the political nature of rule, the war-like state of the nation and the military expectations of a leader are slightly lost. It is referenced, particularly in Agamemnon’s absences and Orestes’ struggle to find his warrior-face but, like Julius Caesar nearby at The Bridge Theatre, this could take more of a position on the fight for nationhood that occurs between politicians and their armies.
Nonetheless, Ward gives his actors plenty of material to create their characters, and best among them is Sian Martin’s Clytemnestra, an unbreakable force combining a talent for all forms of seduction and manipulation with at least the appearance of a maternal heart. The clever insertion of a chat-show-style interview as she recounts her version of life is one of Electra’s most effective scenes, and Martin displays plenty of fight, like a wounded animal determined to draw blood herself.
Matching Martin is Dario Coates’ complex and engaging Orestes, who is considerably more than a two-dimensional hero who rides in to save the day. Despite a devotion to the will of the Gods, Coates offers doubt, fear and disgust at the idea of murder however just the reason, and despite the sense of predestination that hangs over the character, Coates makes Orestes seem ordinary and likeable. There’s good work too from Matt Brewer as Aegisthus a smooth-talking King with no real feeling and a politician’s eye for a photo opportunity.
While Electra may be the headline character, Lydia Larson’s performance is largely outshone by a very talented surrounding cast. Playing her as somewhat crazy and bitter throughout, which Larson does effectively, doesn’t really give her anywhere to go or earn much audience investment. Even when the middle section forgets about Electra entirely you barely notice, this play may as well be called Clytemnestra and Orestes.
The simplicity of Ward’s approach using just the musical instruments and a central dirt-square focuses attention on the characters and the points the version of Electra wants to highlight. Whether you find it disturbing or comforting to think that revenge will eventually come to those who do bad deeds, this political Electra still feels like a very modern story.
Runs until: 24 March 2018 | Image: Lidia Crisafulli.