Electra

How does it happen? All of a sudden, or so it seems, a slew of homages to Greek mythology. First, there was Seymour’s abominable Trapped in Mykonos. Then, Griffin’s highly creditable The Bull, The Moon & The Coronet. Tomorrow evening, I look forward to Bell’s Phedre. Meanwhile, there was No White Elephant’s Electra at Tap Gallery Theatre (upstairs), directed by erstwhile actor, Richard Hilliar. Hilliar has just been announced as the new director of Sydney Shakespeare Festival and, on the strength of his Electra, I anticipate productions from that company enthusiastically.

Hilliar’s Electra is full of bright ideas, despite the rather darker themes of the play. As we enter and negotiate the narrow vestibule, overpopulated with crude artworks, which leads to the airless, eerily tomblike, Tap Gallery theatre, women clad in black robes face the walls and wail. On emerging into the tiny black box, we find that scenic painter Andrea Espinoza has rendered the walls rustically grey. As such, they resemble those one might encounter in a mausoleum, or the concrete canyons of an uninspired CBD. Either way, the effect is demoralising. As well it might be, for we are entering a time and place of wretchedness.

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Electra is in a crabby mood. She’s a bit one-eyed when it comes to her late father, Agamemnon, choosing to see his brutal dispatch of her sister as a matter in which he had no option and for the greater good; in other words, she tends to look it as a noble act of statesmanship, rather than filthy deed of filicide. It’s put her at odds with her mother, who has been unable to forgive what she, instead, sees as the malicious act of a mouse of a man too easily influenced by his brother. Electra’s dim view of her mother has been hardened by her hasty marriage to her cynical and opportunistic, if not downright sinister, stepfather. As with most family squabbles, it’s complicated and historical; clouded by pronounced attachments and the lack of them to ideas, feelings and people. It’s really Neighbours on steroids (which sound like Greek drugs to me).

Hilliar has innovated on the concept of the Greek chorus, so that, sometimes, an offstage voice will join in stereophonic synchronicity with an onstage one. As well, the whole drama is like a dance, thanks to the poetry-in-motion developed by movement consultant, Amanda Laing. Costumes are simple and effective. Nothing is overwrought. The entire cast is outstandingly good, with Amy Scott-Smith, nonetheless, standing head and shoulders above the rest, as Electra. Her exquisitely modulated voice and exemplary elocution are matched, physically, by a meticulously nuanced gestures, such that every emotion and expression is fully imbued with authenticity and believability.

Rose Maher, Emily Livingstone and Emily Elise are much tastier than chopped liver, too, as the women of Argos, Electra’s collegiate confidantes. Nicole Wineberg impresses, too, as Chrysothemis (not recommended for people with lisps), the weak-willed sister of Electra. Cat Martin is Electra’s murderous mother, Clytemnestra. As such, her expertise enables her to tread the notoriously difficult line between engendering sympathy and contempt. Dominic McDonald, however, is effortlessly contemptible as the opportunistic Aegisthus. He’s Australia’s answer to John Hurt. Any resemblance isn’t totally coincidental. His gruffly seasoned vocal timbre is the quintessence of evil. Nathaniel Scotcher’s Orestes (Electra’s brother, thought and announced dead, but returned) also captures a Shakespearean complexity of character which makes him relatable, as against the remoteness that can arise when mythological figures are understood and drawn rather more literally, simplistically and unidimensionally.

There are moments (or there were, on opening night) when the women of Argos seem not to know what face to pull, but these are few. On the whole, NWE’s Electra is a tiny tour de force, raising more questions than it answers, which, surely, is the way both ancient Greek and modern Australian drama ought to be.

The details: Electra will play at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst, until June 15. Tickets on the venue website.

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