We sometimes think that broken homes are a modern phenomenon. Domestic life in 21st century Britain seems to be mostly affairs, divorces, and paternity tests — presided over by Jeremy Kyle as the judgemental rain god of tears. But this blistering adaptation of Sophocles’ ancient tragedy reminds us that family dysfunction is as old as families themselves. The premise is even more screwed up than the most lurid TV shoutathon: mum moves in with a new lover; mum and new lover hack dad apart with an axe. The kids are not, to put it mildly, alright.
The play starts with Orestes, the exiled son, returning to avenge the murder. This boyish adventurer, sensitively played by Jack Lowden, at first seems little to understand the darkness that has plagued his life. But his sister Electra, who stayed at home, understands the horror of the situation — and is consumed by it.
Kristin Scott Thomas appears as a tiny, bedraggled figure but her Electra quickly irradiates the whole building with her fury and sorrow. She flits masterfully between grief, anger, hysteria, bitter humour and searing stillness. This is an excruciatingly real human, one on the very edge. Her commanding performance makes Electra’s need for bloody revenge, potentially jarring to modern ears, all too understandable.
Electra’s irreparably broken relationship with her mother, Clytemnestra, lies at the heart of the play. Played with bristling majesty by Diana Quick, the intensity and forceful dignity in her all-too-brief appearance add a troublingly human counterweight to Electra’s unrelenting revenge-lust. Their confrontation is a volcanic piece of theatre.
The Spartan setting — just a palace gate and a tree, and an eery soundscape — is a fitting canvas for a play of such psychological depth. As the brutal course of events unfold, the siblings (and the audience) are flayed to their core, left with nothing more than disturbing questions about the nature of love, justice and revenge. Expect no catharsis at the end of this bleak road but, bolted to your seat, you won’t forget the journey any time soon.