Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review: 'Electra' at The Bunker, 6th March 2018

Electra reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Murder, betrayal and revenge never go out of fashion. These universal themes are what makes plays like Sophocles' Electra, first performed 2,400 years ago, continue to vibrate like a tautly pulled guitar string. Who can't sympathise with rage at a father unjustly killed, children abandoned by their mother and a metastasising cancer at the heart of government?

Dumb Wise Theatre's adaptation, written and directed by John Ward, keeps the poetic meter but updates the language, peppering the lyricism with "fuck you"s and a patchwork of contemporary references. Though the play nominally takes place in the ancient city of Argos, we immediately understand it to be a placeholder for a modern political patchwork that encompasses elements from the Arab Spring, Blairism and a PR conscious media landscape.

Underneath the modern elements, the core of the Electra is what Sophocles wrote: Queen Clytemnestra (Sian Martin) and her lover Aegisthus (Matt Brewer) have murdered the heroic King Agamemnon and assumed the throne. Agamemnon's son and rightful heir Orestes (Dario Coates) was exiled as a child and raised by rebels seeking to place him on the throne and his daughter Electra (Lydia Larson) rages against the injustices of her mother's court, praying for the day when her long-lost brother will return.

All this is played out on a dusty bare-knuckle boxing pit of a stage. It's bordered by a forest of glowing tubes and instruments on which the impressively multi-talented cast play the show's pumping score. As the performers move about they kick up billowing clouds of choking dirt, squeeze fistfuls of dirt and press their faces into it as if trying to commune with the land they're battling over. Underneath the soil is the eroded, abandoned tomb of the murdered King, a constant reminder of the guilt of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra and the fury of Electra and Orestes.

It's great stage design, and the gripping drama played out on it does it justice. Obvious highlights are Sian Martin's villainous Queen, portrayed as a public relations expert as she subtly weaves her personal story into the national narrative. Williams is amazing at showing the microseconds of emotional truth when her cool mask slips, revealing the paranoia bubbling up inside her. Matt Brewer's eloquent politician gradually sliding towards corruption also impresses - not an outright villain but corrupted by power and the decisions he made to seize it.

Best of all is Lydia Larson's Electra, who sets the stage alight. Larson is one of my favourite actors at the moment (brilliant in both Skin A Cat and Brutal Cessation) and knocks it out of the park. There's a lot of Hamlet in her Electra, she does a great line in rebellious seething and viciously worded denunciations of her mother and stepfather. She powers through the play like a guided missile, her arc taking her from angry, to very angry, to incandescently furious, ending up at cracked murderous joy. The only downside is that next to her tour-de-force, Dario Coates' Orestes is a bit anaemic.

The only real flaw is that Aegisthus' villainy is outdated. The era of the shinily suited PR-led centrist politician ended with Cameron's post-Brexit resignation in 2016. It's difficult to equate the id-driven chaos of Trump, the incompetent incoherence of May or the tweed honesty of Corbyn with Aegisthus' character. That the target of the show's fury is yesterday's news slackens its grip, and though there are attempts to keep things relevant for 2018 they don't quite work -  for example, I have no idea what statement is trying to be made by having the diabolical scheming authoritarian quoting Jeremy Corbyn's "for the many, not the few" slogan.

Quibbles aside, Electra kicks ass. It's Greek drama firing on all cylinders: exciting, involving and exhilarating - and Lydia Larson gives what I can already tell is going to be one of my favourite performances of the year. Go see it.

Electra is at The Bunker until 24 March. Tickets here.

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