“You will die from all this grieving.” Oh no she won’t. Playing the title role of Sophocles’ “Electra,” a mesmerizing Kristin Scott Thomas is paradoxically alive with grief. Being both simultaneously hollowed out and sustained by physically wrenching sorrow and hatred, she charges up the auditorium as much as she does her character’s life. The trouble is, too few of the extremely uneven cast can match her. Strong though it is on atmosphere, Ian Rickson’s direction lacks the architectural command to control and release the play’s punch.
Working in-the-round, designer Mark Thompson and lighting designer Neil Austin provide a “Waiting For Godot”-style arena. Sun-scorched sand is rooted by a single bald tree, plus four steps to doors into the home where Clytemnestra (Diana Quick) engendered the play’s pivotal hatred by murdering her husband, Electra’s father.
Every day, Electra goes through the ritual of reliving his death and prostrating herself with grief, thereby firing up her desire for revenge. And, from the word go, Scott Thomas convinces. She uses Frank McGuinness’ words as triggers to a thought-driven intensity that is as physical as it is verbal. But it’s here that the trouble starts. There is too little sense of a pain dulled by repetition. Rickson is setting the volume, as it were, too high.
Dynamic and impressive though Scott Thomas is, the over-emphasis of Rickson’s pacing leaves the production almost nowhere to go. With the huge reversals of Sophocles’ plot still to come, that’s seriously problematic. So much so, that when the Stranger (measured Peter Wight) delivers the false news of the death of her beloved but missing brother Orestes (Jack Lowden), her reaction feels like yet more grief rather than the awful raw pain of fresh hell and the death of hope.
The litmus test of a production of “Electra” is its most visceral onstage moment, the reunion of brother and sister. Scott Thomas plays the end result — elation as she hangs in feverish delight about Lowden’s neck — but Rickson fails to provide her with the motor for the moment. As the two of them rush towards one other in shocked recognition and happiness, the necessary parallel rush of emotion in the audience isn’t there.
Although Lowden blurs his work with wavering physicality, he displays a useful fresh-faced naivety. Quick lends nicely self-justifying power to Clytemnestra and Liz White brings a notably stable voice of reason to Chrysothemis. But Rickson hasn’t found a way of unifying the three-strong chorus of women, who fall between detailed naturalism (Rickson’s directorial strong suit) and portentous intoning, a numbing choice sadly underlined by Tyrone Huggins’ near fatally weak Aegisthus.
Rickson’s gift is for mapping actors across minutely calibrated naturalistic moments. The high style and long lines of Greek drama don’t play to his strengths. He has guided the mercurial Scott Thomas to majestic heights in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” in both London and Gotham and again in masterly productions of Pinter, especially “Old Times.” Here, her bravura turn, fuelled as much by sardonic timing as raw power, is again winning high local praise. But the production remains impressive when it should be moving.