By Joseph Hurley
ELECTRA, by Sophocles. Adapted by Frank McGuinness. Directed by David Leveaux. Starring Zoe Wanamaker, Claire Bloom and Pat Carroll. At McCarter Theatre, Princeton, N.J. Through Oct. 4.
It would be obvious, even if he hadn’t underscored the point in a program note, that director David Leveaux’s production of Frank McGuinness’s dazzling new adaptation of Sophocles’s "Electra" is an elaborate metaphor for the ongoing horrors of Bosnia.
The production, celebrated in its premiere engagement at London’s Donmar Warehouse, is on view at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre through Oct. 4, with a cast headed by Zoe Wanamaker, who played the title role in England, joined here by Claire Bloom as Clytemnestra and Pat Carroll as the Chorus of Mycen’.
Leveaux’s beautifully calibrated, crystal clear staging of the 90-minute work proves, among other things, that the Donegal-born McGuinness can rise to just about any challenge the theater might choose to hand him.
Two seasons ago, the 45-year-old playwright and scholar, best known until then for "Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me," was represented on Broadway by his striking new version of Henrik Ibsen’s "A Doll’s House," in a smash hit, long-running production that won four 1997 Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play.
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Soon, the Buncrana native’s work will be on the world’s screens when his film adaptation of Brian Friel’s highly regarded play "Dancing at Lughnasa" opens.
Although McGuinness’s stage adaptations have included, in addition to his acclaimed versions of plays by Ibsen, fresh, new treatments of the works of Chekhov, Lorca, and Brecht, "Electra" represents the first time the playwright has approached the Greeks.
When McGuinness was approached about writing an adaptation of Sophocles’s tragedy for the Donmar Warehouse, according to director Leveaux, he pondered the offer, and then expressed some hesitation.
"He wasn’t certain he could handle anything from the Pre-Christian era," Leveaux told Princeton playgoers who remained following a recent "Electra" matinee to take part in a post-performance seminar at the McCarter.
McGuinness, one of the few writers capable of working from the original Greek when approaching a new version of Sophocles, finally overcame his apprehensions and delivered a streamlined and enormously speakable text that became one of the great successes of last year’s London theatrical season and won an Olivier Award for actress Wanamaker.
"Electra," of course, is part of the agonizing story of the House of Atreus, arguably the most dysfunctional family in the history of literature. The "Backstory" of "Electra" involves Agamemnon, king of Mycen’, father of the titular heroine and of her brother, Orestes, and of Iphigenia, whom he sacrificed in order to placate the gods before he set off to lead the Greek fleet into war with Troy.
With Agamemnon away, his wife, Clytemnestra, took ‘gisthus as her lover. When her husband returned from the Trojan Wars, the adulterous couple assassinated him.
The youthful Orestes, having been sent into hiding, returned to find Electra burning with desire to avenge the death of their father by killing the treacherous Clytemnestra and, if possible, ‘gisthus.
Director Leveaux has placed his "Electra" in a rubble-strewn courtyard, with a timelessness underlined by placing fragments of a fallen column of classical origins alongside three shattered chairs dating from the 19th century.
The production’s set and costume designer, Johan Engels, has provided a massive wall of grayish brick, alongside a huge sliding door which comes into play for the production’s startling conclusion.
The actors, with one galvanic exception, are garbed in black greatcoats, as Electra wears a torn and tattered overcoat which belonged to her slaughtered father.
That one exception to the drab costume scheme is actress Bloom’s lustrous Clytemnestra, dressed from her shoulders to her shoes in flaming scarlet.
Actress Wanamaker, last seen in the area in a Manhattan Theatre Club revival of Joe Orton’s "Loot," would, with her pug nose, round face and button eyes, seem better suited to comedy than to tragedy, an assumption she completely negates with her riveting, magically sustained performance as Sophocles’s obsessive heroine, beginning and ending her work with a white facial mask strongly reminiscent of Japanese Noh Theatre.
The McCarter stage floor is covered from corner to corner with "dirt," through which the characters drag their long, distressed outergarments, adding to the production’s overall look of disorder and disruption, suggestive of a world where families have been wrenched apart and any semblance of civilization has been rendered unrecognizable.
At times it is as though the familiar newspaper photographs of the Balkan atrocities have sprung magically to life and been made all the more harrowing through the addition of another physical dimension, with their impact heightened and intensified by the presence of actors made of flesh and blood.
And the McCarter cast which director Leveaux has assembled provides vastly more than merely solid support for actress Wanamaker, the sole holdover from the Donmar Warehouse production.
Claire Bloom’s silken, deeply evil Clytemnestra ranks with the best of her recent performances, as she parries and thrusts with her tigerlike and vengeful daughter.
Pat Carroll, famous for playing Gertrude Stein, is the only member of this production’s chorus, although she is accompanied by two silent colleagues, played evocatively by Mirjana Jokovic and Myra Lucretia Taylor.
Michael Cumpsty, one of the New York theater’s best young leading men, provides a stalwart Orestes, who shows a clear sense of self-doubt even as he allows himself to be manipulated by his revenge-bound sibling.
Martin Hinkle brings a surprising degree of tenderness to the role of Chrysothemis, the third child of Clytemnestra, and Stephen Spinella stands out as Orestes’s loyal servant.
As the briefly seen ‘gisthus, Daniel Oreskes makes it entirely clear why the children of Agamemnon find him such a loathesome replacement for their vanquished father. As Pylades, the production’s third non-speaking role, the Bulgarian-born Ivan Stamenov, like the mute women of Frank McGuinness’s chorus, watches, listens, and suffers.
For a work which is unstintingly and resolutely concerned with anger, hatred and particularly grief, Frank McGuinness’s fresh, new vision of Sophocles "Electra" is astonishingly free of the numbing, droning quality which infects so many productions of the classic Greek tragedies. Once again, the Irish scholar and dramatist proves himself to be a stunning force in the theater.
"Electra" ends its McCarter run this Sunday, but there appears to be at least some sort of possibility of a New York booking, possibly in Manhattan, possibly in Brooklyn.
As things stand, however, a journey to Princeton, only a little over an hour out of Penn Station, is required. The efforts of Wanamaker, Bloom, Carroll, Leveaux, McGuinness, and, oh, yes, Sophocles, will make the trip well worth the trouble.