Exquisite Pain

An Electra informed by Sarajevo makes the unimaginable all too real.

By Cary M. Mazer


Mourning Becomes Her: Wanamaker (right) with Cumpsty (left) and Mirjana Jokovic

McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, through Oct. 4 (609) 683-8000

Sophocles' Electra at McCarter Theatre will make you avert your eyes. David Leveaux's production is so strongly cast, so solidly executed, so visually oppressive, and portrays the pain of emotional loss and crippling, obsessive sorrow so intensely, both in the playwright's characterizations and the performance of Zöe Wanamaker in the title role, that it is almost too much to sit and watch. Like the devastation and carnage in Sarajevo, which Leveaux and set designer Johan Engels use as their principal metaphor, the human loss is almost unimaginable; theater, like the news footage out of Bosnia, makes the unimaginable so vividly present that it is easier to shut down one's response than to share the pain of the people and events before one's eyes.

The facade of the royal palace in Argos is a bare wall, stripped down to its bricks, braced by huge timbers, its towering doorway now a sliding sheet of rusty metal. Elegant dining room chairs, rump sprung and missing legs, sink into dirt. Water drips steadily onto the ruins of what might once have been a table. When the old servant (Stephen Spinella) who had rescued Orestes (Michael Cumpsty) years before brings him back to the city of his birth to avenge his father Agamemnon's death, he points to where the temples, palaces and marketplaces once stood. All we see is mud and wreckage.

Electra has been waiting for Orestes' return all these years, and when we first see her she, too, is nothing but wreckage. She wears an oversized military coat and oversized men's pinstriped trousers (we learn their origins later on), her thatchy hair cut short until there is barely a lock left that she can snip to put on her father's grave, her face frozen into a mask (and represented, initially, by a literal mask) of sorrow and rage. Leveaux and Wanamaker took as their model newsreels of a young woman in Sarajevo who had virtually lost her ability to speak. Unlike that woman, and unlike several of the women of the Chorus who suffer in stony silence, Electra speaks (and hisses, and spits, and groans, and pukes) almost compulsively, lashing out against her mother Clytemnestra (Claire Bloom), who, with her lover Aegisthus (Daniel Oreskes), murdered Agamemnon years before. But like the woman in the newsreel, Electra is damaged beyond repair. Loss and anger do not ennoble; they cripple.

Sophocles' version (the myth was also dramatized by his contemporaries Aeschylus and Euripides) hinges on a series of ironies, which Leveaux exploits to their dramatic fullest: Orestes and his servant have decided to catch Clytemnestra and Aegisthus off guard by delivering the false news that Orestes has died. And so, until Orestes reveals his true identity to his sister late in the play, we see each character in turn react to the news of his death, to their thwarted hopes and expectations.

No emotion is simple, no emotion is what they, or we, might expect it to be. Electra's more accommodating sister Chrysothemis (Marin Hinkle) rushes in with fresh evidence that Orestes has returned, only to be told that he is dead. Electra expects Clytemnestra to exult at the news, and discovers that her mother's response to her son's death is far more complicated and deep than she (Electra) could expect, or imagine, or understand. When Electra, mourning over the ashes of her dead brother, is told by the mysterious stranger that her brother is not only alive but standing before her, she faints dead away in the servant's arms. Even Aegisthus surrenders to the ironies and contradictions of human response, triumphing over the supposed corpse of Orestes until he discovers that it is actually the corpse of his freshly murdered lover, and so resigns himself to the slaughter facing him.

If this sounds like it might be too much to take, it is. And so is Zöe Wanamaker's astonishing performance, filled with soul-wrenching hatred, agony and a few moments of odd tenderness. We believe her at every instance, and we sympathize with her immensely. But we don't feel her pain ourselves. We could not possibly feel what she is feeling; if we did we might become as crippled as she is. We simply cannot imagine the emotions coursing through her body as she hears the death cries of her hated mother inside in the palace and writhes in the mud, moaning in chorus with them; as with the news out of Sarajevo (or Rwanda, or Omagh), it's easier simply to watch, to try to understand, and to reassure ourselves that we might never have to face a world, or a family, so devastated.

Claire Bloom brings enormous dignity and depth to her extended scene as Clytemnestra. Stephen Spinella's narration of Orestes' death, though false, is riveting in its apparent truthfulness. And Pat Carroll, speaking for the other two silent women of the Chorus, voices the conflicting emotions of a population ravaged by years of events. The translation, prepared for Leveaux's initial production of the play with Zöe Wanamaker at the Donmar Warehouse in London two years ago, is by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness.