Helen Edmundson’s wonderfully clear, uncompromising reworking of Euripides’ play gets the emotionally intelligent production it deserves from Nancy Meckler – divine justice perhaps, as it was Meckler’s idea to revisit it.
For Euripides, divine justice in the form of the Furies pursuing Prince Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra to avenge her murdering his father Agamemnon, is unusually tempered with Apollo’s divine mercy, the deus ex machina organising a happy ending.
Edmundson’s retelling offers no such easy way out, starting at a high emotional pitch and upping the ante to an almost unbearable climax, sadly more plausible in our troubled times.
Well may her protagonists plead ‘to break the chain of death on death’. She draws parallels with honour and suicide killings and points the timeliness of the ancient story of tit for tat revenge. Meted out down the generations of the murderously dysfunctional royal family of the House of Atreus, it escalates into war overseas at Troy walls, propelling an alliance of citizen armies into a deadly conflict destined to drag on for years… The Middle East conflicts are all too well invoked, but she tells her story on an intensely personal level.
It’s hard not to empathise with the emotionally-starved siblings Orestes and fellow matricide Electra. Mairead McKinley’s heart-breaking Electra, still smeared with maternal blood, wraps herself in Clytemnestra’s glamorous garments, hungrily sniffing her lingering scent and articulating her longing to return to the womb. And at first Alex Robertson’s beautiful but fatally-damaged boy Orestes can barely uncurl from his foetal position in his parents’ marital bed, now scene of slaughter, to ward off his own personal Furies, let alone fight the death sentence passed on the matricides.
Helen, returned from Troy reunited with husband Menelaus and new baby daughter Hermione, twists the emotional knife. Clare Onyemere, no dumb beauty, is frighteningly articulate, contemptuously speculating how Clytemnestra could have shown affection for the awkward Electra. Even the bond between grandparent and grandchild is broken, for grandfather Tyndareus (sternly magisterial Jeffery Kissoon) utterly rejects his murderous grandchildren. And the false hope Tim Chipping’s smooth-talking Menelaus offers seems to harden the siblings’ purpose towards an incestuous Liebestod.
There’s no chorus – but Claire Prempeli’s gentle wet-nurse slave is an eloquent emblem of resilient humanity and standing at the edges of the set, ranks of earth-red sculpted figures mutely focus the action. Designer Niki Turner completes her vision with a magnificent monolithic chamber door hung with a glittering wardrobe of Clytemnestra’s shoes that plays its part in the final coup de theatre and a shocking, cathartic denouement.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford)