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Theater

Sophocles’ Elektra, translated by Anne Carson, directed by Thomas Moschopoulos – until September 27, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario

Laura Condlln (left) as Chrysothemis and Yanna McIntosh as Elektra in Elektra. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann.
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Laura Condlln (left) as Chrysothemis and Yanna McIntosh as Elektra in Elektra. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann.
Laura Condlln (left) as Chrysothemis and Yanna McIntosh as Elektra in Elektra. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sophocles’ Elektra

Director – Thomas Moschopoulos
Designer – Ellie Papageorgakopoulou
Lighting Designer – Itai Erdal
Composer – Kornilios Selamsis
Choreographer – Amalia Bennett
Stunt Coordinator – Todd Campbell
Assistant Director – Alan Dilworth
Assistant Choreographer – Diana Coatsworth
Assistant Set Designer – Jennifer Goodman
Assistant Costume Designer – Kimberly Catton
Assistant Lighting Designer – Jennifer Lennon
Dance Captain – Diana Coatsworth
Vocal Monitor – Tahirih Vejdani
Stage Manager – Janine Ralph
Assistant Stage Managers – Katherine Arcus and Martine Beland
Production Stage Manager – Anne Murphy
Technical Director – Sean Hirtle
Cast:
Elektra – Yanna McIntosh
Clytemestra – Seana McKenna
Aigisthos – Graham Abbey
Chrysothemis – Laura Condlln
Old Man – Peter Hutt
Orestes – Ian Lake
Pylades – E. B. Smith
Attendant to Chrysothemis – Naomi Wright
Attendants to Clytemestra – Alden Adair and Brad Hodder
Chorus of Women – Sarah Afful, Jacquelyn French, Barbara Fulton, Monique Lund, Ayrin Mackie, Tahirih Vejdani, Abigail Winter-Culliford
Chorus Swing – Diana Coatsworth

Before this play even begins, one can understand why artistic director Des McAnuff was so taken with Thomas Moschopoulos when he saw a production of the latter’s Alcestis at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus a few years ago. As you settle into your seats for this production, members of the cast mingle with the audience before the curtain rises to chat about Elektra, her moral dilemma, and the incontestable role the audience plays in bringing this drama to life.

This second part of the Oresteia trilogy, like much Greek tragedy in English, is often presented as a melodrama instead of a “political” (in the ancient Greek sense) reflection on justice, fate, determinism and human freedom. Moschopoulos’s skill with the latter approach motivated McAnuff to invite Moschopoulos and fellow Greek theatre junkies to settle in Ontario for a few months to recreate a powerful story that just might be the highlight of Stratford’s 2012 season.

Stratford does not take on many Greek tragedies, but Elektra’s success should lead to more. Anne Carson’s English translation of Sophocles’ text opens room for a range of histrionic possibilities. The actors alternate between prose and poetry, beating out the meter on tables, the floor, and their chests with rising and falling intensity. The chorus sings melodic passages in simple harmonies composed by Kornilios Selamsis that give an eerie, contemporary air to the action on stage. Unaccompanied voices swing from hushed, chant-like mantras to plaintive cries in musical figures faintly reminiscent of blues and pop. Elektra (Yanna McIntosh) responds to the admonitions of the chorus with a range of pitch that seems to throw her tormented soul to the ground in desperation.

The story is told so straightforwardly that even young teens in the audience are enveloped by the tale of a woman bent on avenging the murder of her father. Before setting sail for Troy, Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter and Elektra’s sister, Iphigenia, in obedience to the gods’ command and to ensure safe passage. Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife and Elektra’s mother, with the help of her lover Aigisthos, reciprocates this filicide by slaying Agamemnon and his concubine Cassandra upon their return from war. The portion of the story recounted in Sophocles’ Elektra begins when Orestes (Ian Lake), the brother of Elektra whom she saved by entrusting him to the care of their uncle Strophius, King of Phocis, returns to Argos with his friend Pylades (E. B. Smith) to avenge Agamemnon’s death. Orestes explains to his guardian, the Old Man (Peter Hutt), that he will disguise himself as an envoy from Strophius who has come to announce the death of Orestes. For his part, the Old Man will relay to Clytemnestra and Elektra the gory details of Orestes’ death in a chariot race. Orestes and Pylades, wearing their disguises, come onto the scene carrying an urn that allegedly contains Orestes’ ashes. Orestes then reveals to Elektra his true identity and consoles her with his intent to cut down Clytemestra and Aigisthos. After this heart-rending reunion with his sister, Orestes performs the bloody deed that he and she hope will end the strife plaguing the House of Atreus.

From top, left: Jacquelyn French, Barbara Fulton, Monique Lund, Sarah Afful, Ayrin Mackie as Chorus of Women in Elektra. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
From top, left: Jacquelyn French, Barbara Fulton, Monique Lund, Sarah Afful, Ayrin Mackie as Chorus of Women in Elektra. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Moschopoulos places the chorus at the center of this tragic masterpiece, which is to say that he places us, the citizens of the polis, at the heart of Elektra’s excruciating moral deliberation. The chorus is the bridge that connects our desire for righteousness with Elektra’s thirst for revenge. The chorus gives voice to reason while Elektra seethes shear passion. This production excels in making us sway vertiginously between reason and emotion from beginning to end. At one moment we can’t understand why Elektra won’t just let go of her pain, and the next moment we are convinced it would be a sin for her to do so. McIntosh never lets the energy slide, reaching heights of fury that cannot be surpassed until they finally are. Her imposing stature and hefty voice give as much gravitas as lunacy to her character. She seems on the brink of accepting the chorus’s clearheaded logic before twisting it suddenly in her favor and hurling herself back into the throes of inconsolability. The chorus constantly hovers between audience and stage, approaching and fleeing the protagonist with the ebb and flow of our sympathies for her and for them. Selamsis brings the musical cadence to a seeming resolution only to have Elektra plummet once more into discordant confusion. Never for a moment does it seem the actors are at a loss for what to do next.

Laura Condlln offers a brilliant performance as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis who tries to convince her that there is nothing wrong with carrying out Clytemnestra’s order to make an offering on her behalf at the tomb of Agamemnon. Chrysothemis introduces a new voice of reason to counter Elektra’s ravings. We eventually see that she sees she should be just as furious as Elektra with their mother’s unconscionable deed:

Yes, I know how bad things are.
I suffer too—if I had the strength I would show how I hate them.
But now is not the right time.
In rough waters, lower the sail, is my theory.

Chrysothemis goes on to argue that action should be taken against the wrongdoers only if she and Elektra can be sure it will achieve its end, concluding:

Your choice is the right one. On the other hand, if I want to live a free woman, there are masters who must be obeyed. 

When Chrysothemis comes back from the tomb with evidence that their brother Orestes has returned, Elektra disbelieves her and calls her mad. This makes Chrysothemis’ blood boil as she paints her sister’s obstinacy in black and white:

 

Death itself is not the worst thing.
Worse is to live when you want to die. 

 

McIntosh and Condlln conjure up the pathos of this scene wonderfully in a short space of time. The chorus shirks back to the three sides of the thrust stage to let the sisters duke it out verbally. The audience wavers between accepting the chorus’s claim that Chrysothemis has foresight and Elektra’s accusation that she is a coward. The tension is momentarily interrupted as Orestes and Pylades enter carrying an urn containing the former’s alleged remains. Elektra’s emotions sink to their nadir only to rise again when she beholds her brother in the flesh. The ensuing exchange is so compelling that we forget to search for a motive for Orestes’ seemingly meaningless deception of his older sister.

Ian Lake (left) as Orestes and Graham Abbey as Aigisthos in Elektra. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann.
Ian Lake (left) as Orestes and Graham Abbey as Aigisthos in Elektra. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann.

It is not until the bidding of the Old Man that Orestes acts resolutely with Pylades to butcher Clytemnestra. Aigisthos (Graham Abbey) then enters the scene dressed like a conceited bachelor who has wedded the widow for nothing but money. We see him unravel as he gradually realizes he has walked into a trap and practically resigns himself to the thrusts of Orestes’ knife. The final scene spatters a generous portion of stage blood across the hands, arms, and chest of Orestes bringing a stark realism to an otherwise sparsely furnished set.

Stratford veteran Seana McKenna plays an arrogant and overly self-confident Clytemestra who has spurned her mad daughter but is not beyond tarrying with her to reassure herself that is was right to murder her husband. McKenna waits until precisely the right moment before bursting into a fit of joy at the news of Orestes’ presumed death. She heartlessly uses the occasion to pulverize Elektra’s soul with a barrage of insults and a sermon on why the Fates would have it no other way. McKenna had plenty of practice playing the villain in Richard III last year, and she effectively uses some of the same androgynous chill without losing any femininity.

The set mixes urban graffiti with two rectangular glass tables, evoking a mishmash of rationality and insanity. The audience is made to feel as if they had just walked into a gallery featuring carefully juxtaposed paintings by Piet Mondrian and Cy Twombly. Elektra occasionally grabs a marker to scribble impulsive thoughts onto the tables that only she can see. Indeed, words are tantamount to understanding in this production as both Elektra and the chorus zero in on terms they believe will explain everything. In several places, Carson’s translation simply transliterates Greek exclamations such as IO MOI MOI DYSTENOS, PHEU PHEU, OIMOI TALAINA, and OI ‘GO TALAINA, giving an earthy feel to the plaintive cries of the main characters. Unfortunately, these are either omitted or swallowed by the characters, taking away some of Carson’s punch.

One can only admire the clarity of Moschopoulos’ concept for this production and his ability to convey it to his cast. He systematically incorporates the three tragic elements of music, rhythm, and “rhetorical debate,” but he refrains from interjecting clear answers into the script and allows the actors to craft their characters according to an intelligent reflection and their individual histrionic strengths. Most impressively, as he calls tragedy “an instrument of philosophy,” he probes the depths of the chorus, explaining that the chorus “is not there to tell us what to think about what we are seeing, but how.”

If you are heading for Stratford, don’t miss this golden opportunity to learn “how” to think as much with your emotions as with your thoughts.

About Daniel B. Gallagher

Daniel Gallagher has taught philosophy and theology and is the author of numerous articles in metaphysics and aesthetics. He is particularly interested in the overlapping issues of classical, medieval, and modern theories of beauty and art. A catholic priest, Monsignor Gallagher is currently stationed at the Vatican.

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