The steady drip of water punctuates David Leveaux’s production of “Electra,” but the leak pales next to the bottomless well of grief sounded by the play’s obsessive heroine. More muted than Fiona Shaw’s raw Electra of 1988, Zoe Wanamaker is scarcely less moving, delivering up Sophocles’ aria of anguish with a real, flinty pain: She’s a scrappy Electra, not a scorching one.
Like a distaff Hamlet, Electra feeds voraciously on thoughts of revenge against mother Clytemnestra (Marjorie Yates), who plotted with lover Aegisthus (Raad Rawi) in the murder of Electra’s father, Agamemnon. While sister Chrysothemis (Orla Charlton) urges moderation, Electra will have none of it. She’s the embodiment of drives well beyond the rational, though it’s one of the paradoxes of the play that her fury conveys its own fierce logic.
The challenge with Greek tragedy is to lift it beyond the realm of rhetoric, to remind the audience that the characters’ primal urges are as deeply felt as they are trumpeted. Among the cast, Jenny Galloway’s matter-of-fact Chorus of Mycenae best captures the hard-edged, unsentimental tone that keeps the play from becoming an undifferentiated wash of emotion.
Leveaux goes some way toward bridging a gap in accessibility with an earth-filled set (from Johan Engels) evoking a toppled classical world populated by cigarette smokers and women in scarves who could be modern-day refugees. To that extent, Wanamaker resembles most a bag lady dressed in her father’s threadbare coat. Stalking the palace, she is as quick to take a knife to her carrot-colored hair as she is to spit in her sister’s face.
Orestes, of course, lives to become Electra’s beloved accomplice, but the play’s merciless arc remains, abetted by the cool, fierce translation of Frank McGuinness (who did similar duties on “A Doll’s House”). “Shall there be killing after killing forever?” asks Aegisthus, the answer provided in a cunning final image in which Electra reapplies a mask worn at the outset and takes her place beneath dripping water — Electra’s tears? — now quietly turned to blood.