ELEKTRA, by Sophokles (Stratford). At the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to September 29; see stratfordshakespearefestival.com for details. $57.50-$106.25. 1-800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Song, chant and dance create the energy for the riveting, don't-miss production of Elektra at the Stratford Festival.
The story, here in the version by Sophokles, is ages-old. Before the action of the play, King Agamemnon has been murdered by his wife Clytemestra (that's the spelling here) and her lover, Aigisthos. The young Elektra sends baby brother Orestes far away so their mother won't commit another murder. The ever-mourning, revenge-crying Elektra is a pariah at court, hated by her elders, while they tolerate her docile sister, Chrysothemis.
As the play starts, a trio of strangers arrives to tell Clytemestra that Orestes is dead. That's not, we discover, exactly what the three men have come to do.
You're let into the story before the lights go down, for several of the actors roam through the audience telling the history of the house of Atreus to pockets of audience members; that way we have a back story for what we're about to see.
The Greek team that created this production - director Thomas Moschopoulos, designer Ellie Papageorgakopoulou, composer Kornilios Selamsis and choreographer Amalia Bennett - working with Canadian lighting designer Itai Erdal, give a contemporary look to the show. There's a graffiti-covered wall at the rear, with plastic garbage bags lining it, and pieces of a Greek statue on several tables stretching across the stage. The costumes are a blend of the stylish and the stylized; the queen, for instance, looks like a blond Jackie Onassis, while Elektra could pass as a rebellious 60s university student.
But the feel of the production is a universal one, with Anne Carson's translation sounding elegantly classical and formal one minute, casually conversational the next.
The most elemental aspect of the show, however, is its music, potently connecting viewer with character by using the rhythm of a beating heart. Linked to the movement, the music suggests a repeated flow that pulls us into the story. We're never allowed to forget that rhythm, for it's drummed by the characters on tables, chairs, even their own bodies as they speak their lines.
The chorus is central here, siding first with Elektra, then Clytemestra, later splitting their loyalties between them. Singing, talking or chanting, they are our representatives in the play, which is why they've spent their pre-show time in our midst; the seven women (Sarah Afful, Jacquelyn French, Barbara Fulton, Monique Lund, Ayrin Mackie, Tahirih Vejdani and Abigail Winter-Culliford) address lines and takes on the play's action to us.
Their work is excellent, though at times the choral episodes go on longer than necessary to make their point; occasionally there's a moment when the audience tunes out of the ongoing shared speeches.
The key players are also superb, starting with Yanna McIntosh's Elektra, a sister and daughter torn apart by the loss of brother and father, hating the woman who gave her birth. Drawing on guttural animal cries and high shrieks of rage, McIntosh is an astonishing figure of vengeance, seemingly powerless to act while being forced "to live in a house with my father's killers."
Seana McKenna's Clytemestra is just as powerful, her elegance hiding an ugly side that comes out, surprisingly, in comedy when she's told that Orestes is dead. The confrontation between mother and daughter is a highlight, their insults elegant and deadly.
Among the other fine performances are those of Laura Condlln as the life-loving Chrysothemis, Ian Lake as a firebrand of an Orestes and Peter Hutt as his controlling former tutor. Graham Abbey makes an all-too-brief appearance as a creepily seductive Aigisthos, who you can believe would win over the people as well as Clytemestra.
Powerful story, performances and production elements combine in a great piece of theatre.