Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 23 October, 1997

The premiere of David Leveaux's production of Sophocles' Electra last month in Chichester was greeted with gasps of critical praise to which, on its London opening, there is little to add.

Much has been made in reviews of the revelation of Zoë Wanamaker in the title role; she was, it was said, a more naturally comic actress finding immense tragic depth. In fact, Wanamaker has never been limited to comedy; she simply looks as if she ought to have been, with that lively, puckish face. On Electra's first appearance here, that face is hidden behind a plain mask, and even when the mask is removed, a sensation of nothingness persists.

Electra demonstrates her grief for her father Agamemnon, her rage at his murderers, her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, and her implacable desire for vengeance, stymied because of her sex... but these are all somehow anti-feelings. Wanamaker conveys the sense of having been eaten hollow by the cancer of these emotions, that their fire is the only thing which keeps her moving. She conveys a shocking, draining sense of having once been human, but scarcely being so any longer, as that face furrows almost uncomprehendingly in attitudes which should by rights be entirely alien to it.

When Andrew Howard's Orestes (in a distinctly subordinate performance) reveals himself to her, Electra must reacquaint herself with forgotten sensations, which she does almost grotesquely: the "barren spinster" embraces Orestes as brother, saviour and even lover, and rolls on the ground as Clytemnestra is murdered offstage, in a frenzy of exultation, grief... a desperation to feel something, to the extent of almost sharing in her despised mother's sufferings.

Leveaux's programme notes play the Sarajevo card unnecessarily: Johan Engels' design suggests European urban dereliction, and the three-woman chorus (two of whom remain mute) are dressed in vaguely mitteleuropäisch black, but nothing is gained by thinking "Bosnia", nor anything lost by declining to do so. The same notes, though, speak of Sophocles' use of "authentic silence" which possesses "a moral force"; Leveaux and his cast achieve this state brilliantly a silence not of emptiness but of compelling interrogation. In this project the director is aided by Frank McGuinness's powerfully astringent translation, from which any suggestion of conscious poetry has been assiduously leached.

Rudolph Walker is not so much a servant to Orestes as a sar'nt major, keeping the young man in line and marshalling him towards the execution of his revenge; Marjorie Yates's Clytemnestra is unrepentant of the murder of her husband, but far from untouched thereby. But the nucleus of all is Wanamaker's Electra: this ragged, shambling yet indomitable woman who seems to have renounced all feelings save those which nourish her. This Electra is situated right at the potent heart of Greek tragedy, that of immediately identifiable humanity stricken in the face of fundamentally incommensurable forces. It is a towering performance.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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