‘Sophocles … but make it punk’ is a worrying premise, and to be fair the first ten minutes of Dumbwise’s Electra stirs the fear that this will be two hours of drum banging and actors running across the stage with their best interpretative dance faces on. There’s even a lot of mud to be heartily rolled around in and metaphorically trudged. But after a brief overture of said earnest scene-setting John Ward’s adaption settles into a throaty, visceral retelling. Emboldened by a vigorous multi-talented cast (oh, to be a polymath performer I’ll just stride over here now and casually start playing the violin for this emotional moment) and some rather fab direction (also from Ward), this Electra carves herself a gory little niche in which to make a home.
Electra follows the titular vengeful daughter of the murdered Agamemnon, slain by his pissed off wife and her ambitious lover, in the bathtub. Though the language and dress is modern, Ward has maintained the high stakes and lyrical rhythms of classical drama. And whilst I don’t think there will a cast album forthcoming anytime soon, the musical numbers are intelligently interwoven. Sian Martin’s turn as the breathy jazz voice of the oracle is a particular highlight, her words pulsating out of the strip-light forest is a strange electric dream.
Ward’s writing tries to cram in too many contemporary references. This confuses characters’ agendas as threads are drawn between them and contemporary popular figures that don’t always seem a great fit – Aegisthus (Matt Brewer as a snake-like politician) apparently channelling Jeremy Corbyn in one speech is one such example. But Ward does do a marvellous job of elevating the language of teenagers to Greek tragedy. Electra is referred to repeatedly as ‘a child’ by the rest of the royal household, and Lydia Larson’s performance marvellously captures the rage and determination of the wronged daughter. In her torn jeans, scuffing her converse she is a balled fist of fury. The righteous anger and impotence she feels in being unable to avenge her father’s murder is written in every glare. If you have ever had the misfortune to be the object of a teenage girl’s wrath, you will understand how a glance can thus wither you to an empty husk.
Dario Coates brings a similar complex believability to Orestes. In his performance, Electra’s baby brother is a reluctant leader of the revolution, one moment a powerful prince ready to seize the throne, the next a fifteen-year-old scare shitless by what the Gods would have him do.
Dumbwise play cleverly with this concept of the ‘will of the gods’ as unseen hands orchestrating events. Clytemnestra (Sian Martin) avows herself an atheist, motivated only by personal ambition. A poised Martin plays her as a woman who will do what she has to do to get the job done. Trying to manage her PR in a disintegrating Greece through a televised interview, the smile slips, her true impetus heartbreakingly revealed.
Homer uses the term ‘thelo’ for human ‘will’ or desire. Later, in the Greek bible translations, the will of the Christian god (or what s/he would will us do) becomes ‘thelema’. Thelema was then in turn co-opted by Aleister Crowley as the central pronouncement of his esotericism ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law, which then in popular culture became interchangeable with Satanism. I make this slightly poncy* etymological deviation to demonstrate that the ‘will of the gods’ depends entirely on what god/s you choose to listen to. Orestes listens to Apollo, Electra listens to her heart, Aegisthus claims to listen to the people. Agamemnon apparently listened to Artemis when he sacrificed Electra’s elder sister to speed his ships to Troy, breaking Clytemnestra into a scream that no one listened to. In this family at war, it’s not so much eye for an eye but blood, on blood, on blood.
*Ok very poncy. Sorry. I don’t get out much.
Electra is on at The Bunker Theatre until 24th March. Book tickets here.