The woman onstage is certainly in a state — she staggers and stumbles, writhing in a grotesque ecstasy of vengeance fulfilled — but it’s the cry from offstage that cuts to the heart. Who needs the Furies? The slain Clytemnestra gets her own, immediate revenge on her matricidal daughter in the McCarter Theater’s “Electra.” In just a quarter of an hour onstage, and this final, agonizing minute off, Claire Bloom’s majestic Clytemnestra nearly upstages Zoe Wanamaker’s feverish, intensely wrought turn in the title role, an Olivier award-winning performance she re-creates here in the original Donmar Warehouse production.
Electra is doubtless a perilous part to play. The character is onstage for virtually the play’s duration and has a good majority of the dialogue. More challenging still is this disquiet soul’s limited emotional range. Agamemnon’s daughter has waited a lifetime to see avenged her father’s murder at the hands of her mother and her lover, and by the time the curtain rises on Sophocles’ telling of the tale, she is in a terminally bad mood, rocketing between one of two high emotional frequencies: keening, piteous lamenting and corrosive hate. Performing the role must be like trying to write an entire symphony using only two discordant notes.
Wanamaker, an American actress whose long and distinguished career has been centered in London, certainly works terrifically hard. In an unstinting, fiercely energetic performance, she stalks the stage in a baggy woolen overcoat whose very lapels seem stiffened with rage, clambering up and down Johan Engels’ set’s centerpiece, a slab of marble onto which water drips with a nagging relentlessness that matches Electra’s own.
Wanamaker’s voice performssimilarly gymnastic feats, moving from guttural growl to girlish whisper in the space of a few words, as she gasps out chunks of bitterness in great gusts. But despite all the sound and fury — and in truth, I think, because of it — we never lose the sense of watching a performance. (Wanamaker may be overcompensating for the size of the McCarter, which is much larger than the Donmar Warehouse.) Only in a rare break in the storm, when Electra hugs what she believes to be the ashes of her dead brother to her heart and delivers a quiet eulogy, does this monstrous creature become human, as acting technique gives way to unadorned emotion.
By contrast, Bloom expends little energy in her brief role as Clytemnestra, the object of Electra’s unending fury, but the masterful simplicity she brings to it is breathtaking. “He cut her soft white throat, my Iphigenia,” she reminds Electra in a voice ringing with unforgotten hurt, citing that daughter’s sacrifice by Agamemnon as justification for her own evil acts — and suddenly the terrible momentum of the Greek tragedies, in which pain begets pain and murder begets murder in an endless cycle of agony, rises before us.
In a mere handful of speeches, Bloom deftly suggests the layers of guilt, anguish, hatred and fear that keep Electra and Clytemnestra locked in emotional combat, but she makes equally clear a paradoxical and profound truth, when Clytemnestra says, “You do not hate your children, no matter how they treat you.”
Supporting performers from the name-heavy cast are largely fine and unobtrusive. Pat Carroll is particularly effective, bringing a quiet, brooding presence to her role as the Chorus of Mycenae. Stephen Spinella is a somber addition as Orestes’ servant, although he can’t make compelling the odd, lengthy speech in which he describes in endless detail an event — Orestes’ death — which the audience knows to be fictional (scholars suggest Sophocles may have been citing a contemporary incident). Michael Cumpsty’s Orestes makes a minimal impression, while as Chrysothemis, Marin Hinkle has a sweet artlessness that contrasts strongly, if a little strangely, with Wanamaker’s histrionic Electra.
David Leveaux’s contempo-apocalyptic production is finely staged. The director cites the horrors of Bosnia in a program note, and the capital of a giant Greek column poking up through the ground of an industrial wasteland is a terrific scenic metaphor that links the primal conflicts of these tragedies to today’s world. But no such metaphors are necessary when we’re confronted with the elemental emotional truth that Bloom brings so effortlessly to the play in her small but pivotal role. You may leave thinking that Bloom’s long absence from the New York stage is almost as criminal as any of the deeds this grim tragedy recounts.