Review: Elektra / Orestes (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Mar 14 – Apr 26, 2015
Playwrights: Jada Alberts, Anne-Louise Sarks
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Linda Cropper, Ursula Mills, Hunter Page-Lochard, Katherine Tonkin, Ben Winspear
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
Classic Greek tragedies depict life at its extremities to explore the human condition. Elektra and Orestes are siblings, separated by grievous circumstances, but eventually united by a need for revenge. The death of their father King Agamemnon had torn the family apart. Murdered by their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, the legacy is one of blood drenched tragedy. In Jada Alberts and Anne-Louise Sarks’ retelling of the ancient tale, the female voice is given emphasis by placing attention on Clytemnestra’s narrative. The traditional villain is given fresh dimension, and the convenient diminishment of her person is transformed so that her legend is presented much closer in essence to our common beings. For centuries, men have ruled the world, and women’s stories are used to serve their purposes. Today, Clytemnestra states her case, and although Agamemnon’s demise remains unforgivable, we gain an understanding of her often buried rationale and arguments.

In addition to providing a new perspective, Alberts and Sarks’ script successfully creates a language that blends classic sensibilities with today’s colloquialisms. Combining the flavours from an epic yesteryear with contemporary domesticity, Elektra / Orestes invites us to relate to its royal characters with a new familiarity. They speak like we do, so their circumstances, although extraordinary, become accessible. The work intends to put focus on the parallels between us and them, finding points of connection through our attitudes toward family discord, and with its emotional universality. Although not unique to the genre, intense sentiments and passionate expression are characteristic. Direction of the piece by Sarks attempts to adapt that extravagant mode of performance for the updated context, with mixed results. Conversations in the play are often pedestrian in style, but with a heavy undertone coloured by sorrow, remorse and fury. The narrative is communicated with crystal clarity but the rejection of a more consistently melodramatic approach requires of its audience, a stronger reliance on logic, thereby sacrificing the more potent visceral effects of being in the presence of rupturing emotion. The story remains engaging, but one questions its relevance when told in a more subdued manifestation.

Performances are generally of a polished standard, but some of its characters are not sufficiently convincing. Linda Cropper as Clytemnestra shines in the second act when her warmer maternal qualities are called upon for a scene of tenderness, but the queen is never quite majestic and intimidating enough. The love for her children is evident, but it is difficult to believe that she is capable of committing the atrocity for which she is known for. Her son, Orestes is played by Hunter Page-Lochard whose star quality is clear to see. He makes his entrance at midpoint after much anticipation, but his interpretation needs greater depth in order for it to live up to our expectations of a broken young man caught in an enormously painful situation. Page-Lochard portrays the confusion of his role with excellent energy, but the qualities of anger and sadness crucial to his narrative does not reach its necessary boiling point. The complex character of Elektra is managed creatively by Katherine Tonkin whose unconventional choices give the show its cool, unconventional feel. Tonkin’s focused conviction is the propulsive force that keeps the entire first act moving quickly and unpredictably, but her chemistry with colleagues is not always strong. Elektra is the instigator of many moments of conflict, and the drama only comes when she manages to make the sparks fly.

The production is minimally designed, with a set by Ralph Myers that conveys a brutal coldness, and in spite of its simplicity, an impression of great wealth and status is achieved by a sense of sophisticated precision. The whiteness of its many bare surfaces represents an emptiness in the household that is waiting to be disrupted. Stage blood is introduced to upset the uncomfortable serenity, but it must be noted that its use is oddly restrained. The space, and the story, demand a bolder attack of red that do not materialise. Sound and lights are similarly conservative. The production is elegant in style, but greater tension could be achieved with a more vivid use of those design elements.

Vengeance is the darkest of human propensities. It is an urge that can be incredibly persuasive, but the price to pay for it afterwards is high, not least of which are the inevitable repercussive effects on the conscience. Sixteenth century philosopher Francis Bacon said that “in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior”. The challenge for the wronged is to find salvation without any dependency on the perpetrator’s state of mind or being. We experience this struggle on many levels, from our very personal selves, to the nationalistic ways our governments operate. Religion might lose its resonance with every passing year, but beliefs about the power of forgiveness are true and eternal.

www.belvoir.com.au