In uncertain times, we often turn to myths and classic stories to help us make sense of what we are seeing in the world around us. Despite their age, the Greek tragedies still maintain their appeal, and perhaps more so than before, are currently experiencing a new breath of life in often radically-reimagined settings and versions. In the past year alone in Sydney, we have seen versions of Antigone, Phaedre, Oedipus Rex, with a version of the Oresteia still to come, no doubt among countless others. And while I’ve never really been a particular fan of the Greek plays, there is something in their cyclical nature, in the way they routinely invoke powers larger and more vengeful than anything we can imagine as humans that is intoxicating and affecting.
Enter Belvoir’s Elektra / Orestes, a kind of double-bill about two members of the house of Atreus, told with verve and boldness by Anne-Louise Sarks and Jada Alberts. Rather than a double-bill in the traditional theatrical sense – two plays in repertory, often playing back-to-back on one night – here we have the same story told from two different perspectives, literally from either side of a wall. In many ways – thematically, mythically – it is a companion to Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired from 2013: where that was first and foremost about people and relationships, Elektra / Orestes is about actions and consequences, and is a good old fashioned revenge tragedy.
Set in and around a kitchen, the staging is extraordinary in its ordinariness. White walls, tables, chairs, chrome fixtures, light wood and glass make the space larger than it is, but its banality – like something in an IKEA showroom – is effective in allowing the story to transcend its location and take place on a higher, grander, mythic plane. Neon lettering in pink and blue tells us which perspective we are seeing the story from, either Elektra’s or Orestes’, and setting the whole thing on a revolve underscores the cyclical and inescapable nature of these stories.
The production opens with a Wagnerian blast of brassy retribution as Elektra sleeps at the table, a nightmare she has every night, the same one her mother, sister and brother have every night. Like the opening skirl of horns, this production is forceful and direct, brash at times yet never gratuitously so. Elektra’s scenes are uncouth and blunt, but even though they seem slightly too elliptical for the play as it currently stands, they are necessary to make the second half work. As the set turns, we find a young man alone in the kitchen – he is Orestes, the son returned home after half a lifetime away – and this is his side of the story. His scenes are direct and lean, and there is a scintillating rhythm at work here in Sarks & Alberts’ script, the way his revengeful homecoming immediately throws the story into a mode where there can only be one inescapable outcome. But while this outcome is necessary, it is also about Orestes trying to wrest control of the situation from his mother, to try to make a difference and break the vicious cycle.
Sarks’ cast are strong and robust, all at once human and archetypal. As Orestes, Hunter Page-Lochard brings a cheeky decisive strength to his role as the homecoming avenger, and underplays the bigness of the character’s function without the visible anguish and torment which has characterised his recent performances. Katherine Tonkin’s Elektra is rambunctious and restless, wearing a homemade T-shirt which reads ‘My mum killed my dad’; she wants to talk if only she could find the right words, if only someone would listen to her. Ursula Mills’ Khrysothemis is stately and fragile; she is the nurse and witness to the underlying tragedy, the one who comforts her mother in the night following her nightmares; the one who will have to pick up the pieces at the end. Linda Cropper’s Klytemnestra is statuesque and composed, although that naturally comes undone at the play’s conclusion. She is detached out of necessity, but not quite unfeeling. Like her partner, Aegisthus (Ben Winspear), we never quite believe her confession to her son at the end. Winspear’s performance is played with a laconic swagger which is not dissimilar to that from his appearance in Emerald City, while his demise is harrowing in its vividness.This is quite a strong production, considering it is relatively fresh out of the rehearsal room. It is bold, striking, and darkly funny, not to mention bloody, and there’s a rhythmic undertone which reminds me of Simon Armitage’s work. With a bit of tightening over the course of its run, this could become an elektrafying hour of theatre. While Montague Basement’s Procne & Tereus remains the most compelling reinvention of a Greek tragedy I have seen to date, Elektra / Orestes puts up a good fight with its “great reckoning in a little room” as past, present and future collide in one great big old showdown of mythic proportions.