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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
September 23, 1998. All rights reserved.
Review: `Electra’ at McCarter
Toward the end of the second millennium a change
occurred in the world. It happened in the Mediterranean, and we are
still living with its effects today. People ceased worshiping the
Goddess who was Mother earth and began worshiping the male God of the
Sky. It was this period of supreme deity swapping that inspired
Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus to dramatize, from their own
angles, the tragic myths surrounding Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra,
Orestes, and the Trojan War.
The power of women is once again unchallenged, omnipotent, and
in Frank McGuinness’ immediately accessible translation under David
Leveaux’s astonishing direction. Well, anyway, that’s how I felt
watching three Goddesses of the stage — Zoe Wanamaker, as Electra;
Claire Bloom, as Clytemnestra; and Pat Carroll, as the chorus of
Mycenae — strut their stuff in this stunning production of
Wanamaker, who won the Olivier award for her performance in this
version presented at London’s Donmar Warehouse last fall, can take her
place alongside some of the greatest Electras of the stage from Katina
Paxinou to Fiona Shaw. The renowned British actress, perhaps best
know in the U.S. for her television roles on "Prime Suspect"
and Masterpiece Theater, is no less than spellbinding as she vents
Electra’s all-consuming rage.
Like a tormented animal, she is almost involuntarily consumed by the
need to make her petite frame scale the walls and ruins of designer
Johan Engels’ water-drizzled setting. Wanamaker is simply magnificent
as an Electra rooted in impassioned and wild madness. And yet
heart-breaking is about all I can think of to describe the tenderness
and poignancy Wanamaker embraces when called upon to mournfully caress
the urn she believes holds the ashes of her brother Orestes. Wow!
Bloom, whose acclaimed performances for over four decades on stage
— on Broadway in "Vivat! Vivat! Regina,"
and "Hedda Gabler;" in film ("Limelight," "Richard
III," and "Look Back in Anger"); and most recently in
her one-woman show "Enter the Actress," yet to be seen in
New York) — is every inch a queen, if, as Clytemnestra, a
chillingly becalmed one.
In this eternally fascinating accounting of how hatred, murder, and
vengeance preoccupied the House of Atreus — a family that seemed
to relish carrying their emotions to extremes — Sophocles’
give us a full share of conflicting emotions amid large dollops of
irony. A notably arresting performance comes from Marin Hinkle, who,
as Electra’s sister Chrysothemis, is not the least bit timid about
displaying her conflicting emotions.
Yet as we know, the play’s principal dynamic rest with Electra.
It’s not that Wanamaker is apt to give Electra much of a rest. After
all, if your mother murdered your father just because he killed, on
the advice of an oracle, your sister, and then took for her lover
her husband’s first cousin while the old man was away at war, wouldn’t
you get sore?
To be serious, which is what the tortured Electra spends all of her
time being during the years (for us it is only 90 minutes) as she
awaits her brother Orestes’ return from hiding, there is a delicious
combat of lesser consequences going on. This one is to determine which
diva will rule the stage. With the relentlessly brilliant Wanamaker,
flailing about in oversized beggar’s clothing, the regal and
Bloom, alluringly flaunting her pride and passion in a scarlet gown,
and the glorious Carroll stirring up the doom and gloom atmosphere
in basic black, ancient Greece has never been whipped up by such a
frenzy of female ferocity.
Even Myra Lucretia Taylor and Mirjana Jokovic as the ever-present
but speechless distaff-citizenry (recognized as chorus) stir our
and minds with their intense involvement. Here is an Electra who
scorn as high art, a Clytemnestra who justifies her bloodcurdling
deeds in sensual defensiveness, and a chorus with the power to provoke
even the Gods to abdicate.
Oh yes, the men. Michael Cumpsty, an imposing and impressive actor
always secure with the classics, has a chance to demonstrate the
prodigal Orestes’ tender side and his fury as he initially reunites
with his sister and then effects his revenge. As the old servant, a
white-haired Stephen Spinella has his moment of glory spinning out the
details of a fateful chariot race. The part may be small, but Daniel
Oreskes impressed me with his arrogant Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s
If Sophocles’ "Electra" appears atypically addressed by
staging, its spirit remains ancient Greek. Leveaux, who was lauded
for his direction of Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson in the
"Anna Christie," gives Sophocles what the old Greek must have
hoped for centuries ago: that the themes of his drama would remain
timeless. Only we and translator McGuinness, through his terrifyingly
real text, can attest to and validate the extremes to which a daughter
will go to avenge her father’s murder.
— Simon Saltzman
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