David Leveaux’s inspiration for staging the Electra of Sophocles was a little girl in a Sarajevo documentary struck dumb by the death of her brother. But who in this production displays what Leveaux calls that “inconsolable silence”? Pylades is (rather awkwardly) written as a nonspeaking part, and the two silent members of the three-woman Chorus are no little girls, and quite marginal besides. The Chorus leader and, of course, Electra talk a blue streak. And here, there is no murderous mortar fire, and no war. As that subtle classical scholar Bernard Knox has shown, this is family, not societal, drama; in this, unlike in other Sophoclean plays, the polis does not exist. The violence is intramural.
Apropos intramural, Johan Engels’s set is part dilapidated palace façade with fire escapes leading nowhere, and part adjoining sandlot with broken-down salon chairs inexplicably scattered about. In the middle is a mystery Thing. Propped up at one end by a broken-off marble Ionian capital is a long, slanting wooden board, suggesting a collapsed catafalque. Nonchalantly draped around its head in artfully flowing folds is a dirty old sheet, which Woman 3 will later throw on as a shawl. Still later, when Orestes and Pylades go about their bloody errand, she makes up the Thing as a bed, with that sheet nicely folded down for, I presume, the royal corpses to slide in comfortably. At other times, the Thing is a combination horse and trampoline for Electra’s gymnastics.
Mycenae, we gather, is afflicted with creeping mutism, but those who speak display no consistent accent. Electra is veddy British, Clytemnestra and Orestes vestigially so, Chrysothemis mid-Atlantic, the Tutor (here called Servant) stage-American, Aegisthus street-American, and Woman 1 gutter-American. Further, the two female mutes act not at all shell-shocked: They solicitously hug or support Electra, crawl with her when she crawls, but never say boo. Often, however, they circle around her, like jackals wanting to make sure their dinner is indeed dead.
Sophocles writes glorious poetry and poetic prose to which Frank McGuinness’s translation does splendid, actable justice. But some actors declaim it with that incipient sob that used to be the sine qua non of the grand style, while others trundle along prosily. Electra recites, rants, whimpers, or rails sarcastically for yocks. As Zoë Wanamaker plays her, she is part Madwoman of Chaillot wearing her father’s tattered clothes, part Ursula the pig-woman from Bartholomew Fair, and two parts Gelsomina from La Strada. If her balding-hedgehog hairdo were blonde, she would, with hopping gait and clownish mannerisms, be a fair caricature of Giulietta Masina. An actress possessed of a large bag of tricks, she is dead set on not sparing us a single one.
As Clytemnestra, Claire Bloom, wearing Johan Engels’s Jezebel red, looks great but gives a routine performance. Michael Cumpsty’s Orestes is a confused, grandstanding jock, intoning his lines with stentorian plangency. Marin Hinkle’s Chrysothemis is a skittish teenager with a whiny singsong, and Stephen Spinella’s old tutor sounds a bit too fruity, and walks, gestures, and hefts Electra like no graybeard ever. Pat Carroll’s huge Woman 1 looks and sounds like the Platonic idea of a fishwife; as Woman 2, Mirjana Jokovic is reduced to a jittery scaredy-cat. Myra Lucretia Taylor is, quite offensively, turned into a black mammy as Woman 3, who also makes the beds. Daniel Oreskes, costumed as a Mycenaean Tom Wolfe, is a crude Aegisthus; Ivan Stamenov, the Pylades, is gotten up as a Greek fisher-boy catamite for Anglophone tourists, which may be why he keeps timorously mum.
When, finally, someone pushes aside the ostensibly heavy back-wall gate like an easily sliding door, to reveal an operettaish white staircase in near-two-dimensional cross section, the production at last fully acknowledges its flatness.