Belvoir St Theatre, March 18
A crumpled, somewhat slovenly figure is slumped at a dining table in a starkly furnished modern room having presumably sat up all night. Above her, a red neon sign spells out the name Elektra.
Sure enough, it is the Elektra of Jada Alberts’ and Anne-Louise Sarks’ Elektra/Orestes: a contemporary adaptation of the Greek myth about a family steeped in violence in the name of revenge. Dressed in baggy track-pants and a T-shirt bearing the scrawled words “My Mum Killed My Dad”, her hair wild and uncombed, she is angry, antsy, anguished, zapping a remote control to turn blasting music on and off.
The mythical tragedy survives in various versions by ancient Greek dramatists Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. Elektra and her brother Orestes kill their mother Klytemnestra in revenge for her murder of their father Agamemnon with the help of her lover Aegisthus. Klytemnestra was in turn avenging the death of her eldest daughter Iphigenia, sacrificed by Agamemnon to appease the goddess Artemis in return for the winds to sail his ships to the Trojan War. He returned home with Cassandra, a war trophy who had borne him twins.
Alberts and Sarks (who also directs) give their new version a modern domestic setting, with a stage design by Ralph Myers. Running a tight one-hour, the first half takes place in the dining room on the day that Orestes finally returns after years in exile to exact Elektra’s long-planned revenge. A door leads into the kitchen, through which the characters disappear then return as events unfold.
As the day begins, Elektra (Katherine Tonkin) is petulant and aggressive towards her mother (Linda Cropper), while her sister Khrysothemis (Ursula Mills) makes coffee and tries to keep the peace. Aegisthus (Ben Winspear) comes and goes, a sleazy figure in boxer shorts and untied velvety dressing gown. Then a messenger (Hunter Page-Lochard) arrives to say that Orestes is dead; but it is Orestes himself.
Halfway through the play, the stage turns and the action start over again, as we watch what was happening unseen in the kitchen during the first part (including Orestes’ climactic murder of Klytemnestra).
It’s a clever concept that makes for an intriguing structure and gripping drama. Sarks balances the production beautifully, making sure the timings work and ensuring that we hear and glimpse just enough from the other room to trace the unfolding drama from the two perspectives.
She and Alberts have also added a shocking, new twist to the family dynamic that ups the ante yet another notch.
Where the Greeks kept the violence off-stage, leaving it to the imagination, Sarks puts it on stage. It’s not easy to portray violence live in the theatre and there were a few giggles on opening night but I thought they handled it well (fight direction by Scott Witt) with enough blood but not too much. The production certainly gives you pause to ponder what a body being stabbed more than 20 times (as we have read about in the news recently) actually means, and the frenzied nature of such an attack.
The performances are generally excellent. Tonkin is ferociously good as Elektra, her fierce performance convincingly powered by overwhelming emotions that she can’t deal with. Instead she lashes out physically and verbally, in almost childlike fashion at times, as grief, anger and bitter resentment consume her.
Cropper is also superb as the cool, chic Klytemnestra encapsulating her tough steeliness yet also the world-weariness, regret and internal conflict she is now forced to live with. The script makes her actions understandable and the final scenes in which she explains herself have a real power.
Mills and Winspear make the most of relatively small roles with vivid performances, and Page-Lochard’s portrayal grows in strength as the play progresses.
Mel Page’s costuming, Damien Cooper’s lighting and Stefan Gregory’s sound all contribute to the taut, effective, stark staging.
The dialogue itself is believably every-day, though certain phrases sing, and there is a surprising amount of humour predominantly as a result of Elektra’s agro. But stripped of the poetry and grandeur of ancient Greek tragedy, Elektra/Orestes makes the violence real and ugly.
Elektra/Orestes doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact as Sarks’ 2012 award-winning, contemporary Medea (co-adapted with Kate Mulvany), which operated in a similar fashion, telling the story from the point of view of Medea’s murdered young sons, seen in their bedroom.
The concluding image of Orestes and Klytemnestra would be more moving if we had seen some of the conflicting emotions raging within Page-Lochard’s Orestes in the lead-up to the murder. As it is, his final reaction comes rather out of nowhere and is therefore less potent.
Nonetheless, Elektra/Orestes is a clever, provocative, pithy piece, showing that revenge only perpetuates cycles of violence and doesn’t assuage anger, grief and resentment (understandable though they may be). Only in forgiveness can we hope to find any peace – something we so often struggle to accept and achieve.
Elektra/Orestes plays at Belvoir St Theatre until April 26. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444