Beautiful acting trumps gore and gunshots in this update of a greek classic.

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney
March 19, 2015

It’s a common theatrical gambit: relocate a classic play to a contemporary setting and in doing so highlight the innate and timeless resonances these ancient works of drama share with our modern lives. Sometimes this strategy can yield fabulous results: recent triumphs include Bell Shakespeare’s Helpmann Award-winning Henry V, set in a 1940’s classroom during the Second World War, or State Theatre of South Australia’s Othello, which draws upon the recent conflict and army engagement in the Middle East as its setting. However Jada Alberts’ and Anne-Louise Sarks’ reimagining of the archetypal Greek tragedy Elektra not only transplants the action to a modern domestic setting, but also updates the dialogue, swapping the epic verse of Sophocles for a colloquial, informal and at times, unflinchingly gritty modern script.

The bare bones of the original story remain intact: Elektra (Katherin Tonkin) is bent on avenging her father’s murder, while harbouring the secret location of her brother Orestes (Hunter Page-Lochard), spirited away eight years previously following her father’s death. Elektra’s patricidal mother, Klytemnestra (Linda Cropper), her adulterous lover Aegisthus (Ben Winspear), and Elektra’s sister Khrysothemis (Ursula Mills) attempt to function with some normality, inevitably failing to do so as the toxic familial relationships at work corrode any hope of reconciliation. A mysterious stranger appears, announcing the death of Orestes. Little does the family know that he is actually an instrument of revenge, there to deliver the final, mortal blow to this irreparably damaged family. However Elektra/Orestes is about more than a simple deciphering of an arcane text. Alberts and Sarks have refocused the action to highlight an aspect of the story that is barely present in the original: an exploration of domestic violence and the lingering stain it can leave on a broken family.

The production opens on a bare stage, save for a simple dining room table, flanked by the kitchen doorway. Ralph Myers’ set is clearly contemporary, but does little to indicate social status. Mel Page’s costumes imply this is an upper-class family but this is still a world away from the royalty of Sophocles’ original. The drama is direct and concise: a terse, merely uncomfortable morning of snide remarks and uncooperative behaviour gradually takes on a subtly sinister quality. Elektra’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, suddenly conciliatory with her despised mother, and cryptically desperate with her sister. Slowly we understand that somewhere, off stage, something terrible is taking place until the sudden, jolting crack of a gunshot in another room breaks the silence – and all this happens in just over 30 minutes. But this is not (and yet is) the end of the story. In an Ayckbourn-esque piece of invention, the stage rotates and we see the action of play once again, from the perspective of the kitchen, located through the doorway. From here the missing pieces of the drama fall into place, revealing the murderous truth of the morning’s uncharacteristic behaviour.

This is a compelling and very admirable method of turning the politically complicated, highly mystical source material into a taut, narratively riveting, one hour thriller, which is underpinned by unanimously strong performances from all five actors. Sarks’ direction delivers a largely convincing, and well observed dynamic between the family members, and produces some moments of heart-breaking pathos as well as some very well judged humour. Linda Cropper’s portrayal of Klytemnestra is particularly revelatory, transforming this morbidly ambitious, ruthless figure of classical literature into a struggling, admirably strong woman, driven to kill by unimaginable brutality, and consequently haunted by the decisions of her past, forced to live every day with the repercussions of those actions.

However, the fleet pace of this drama is a trade-off for the nuance and development needed to fully realise these classical characters. Given the brevity of this play and the matter-of-fact nature of the dialogue, some of the characterisation became slightly caricaturish in order to establish the family dynamic in double-quick time. Tonkin’s petulant, slobbish Elektra, wearing a self-styled t-shirt bearing the words “My Mum Killed My Dad” is imbued with the stroppy immaturity of an angst-ridden teenager, rather than the architect of her family’s demise, and Ben Winspear’s super-sleazy Aegisthus is such an unscrupulous lothario that when his affair with Khrysothemis is revealed it hardly feels surprising or significant.

Another misjudgement is surely the deaths, which in their attempts to seem authentic, took on a strangely pantomime, slap-stick quality, and predictably elicited the few nervous giggles from the audience. The violent struggle between Orestes and Aegisthus is suitably blood-soaked and brutal, but lacks believability when played out so close to the audience, and ultimately the attempt to be shockingly explicit creates too many opportunities for weakness. This play packs its strongest punches with the calibre of its actors, and not with gore and gunshots.

Belvoir St Theatre present Elektra/Orestes until April 26.

Maxim Boon is a composer, writer and critic currently living and working in Sydney, Australia. Born in Cambridge in the UK, Maxim studied composition at the prestigious Chetham’s School of Music from the age of 14 before achieving his BMus (hons) undergraduate degree form the Royal Academy of the Music in London and his Post Graduate degree from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. His award-winning music has been played throughout Europe and Australia including commissions for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, The London Symphony Orchestra, The BBC Singers, The Fidelio Trio, the Arditti Quartet and the London Sinfonietta. He has been a featured composer at the Spitalfields Festival, the Cheltenham Festival, Vault Festival, In-Transit Festival and Sydney Fringe Festival, and at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He is currently a Soundhub Resident Artist with London Symphony Orchestra and a Britten-Pears Resident Artist. Maxim is the Online Editor of Limelight Magazine.