Electre, Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers, Paris

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There are many ways to stage Greek tragedy but this wasn’t one of them. The evening saw an insipid, sterile production that wasted the potential of
good actors and a fine theatre as well as the audience’s time.

Doubts set in early. The director Philippe Calvario has always had a soft spot for scattered, showy effects and hovered dangerously close to cliché, but by and large he made up for it with a youthful energy and freshness. However, faced with the psychological horror and precision of Sophocles’ study of matricide, his limitations were starkly apparent. We skittered over the surface, never coming remotely near to emotional sincerity and dramatic coherence. The microphoned actors struggled against a lack of direction and failed to connect with each other and us. The killings had zilch dramatic tension, made worse by hackneyed bloody hands for the murderers.

The staging didn’t help, with its boring backdrop of white blockhaus and crude spot-lighting. Clytemnestra entered against an incongruous, Bob Wilson-style red backdrop, as out of place as her Hollywood Wives costume.

Jane Birkin’s scraggy, ravaged Electre took the path of repressed intensity to convey fragility and madness. The effect was cerebral, detached and, on such a huge stage, woefully underpowered. Her careful articulation, fluttery hands and myopic peering left us indifferent, while the plea “let me be mad!” had the tepid force of a frustrated teacher.

But Calvario also did few favours to his more established actors. Florence Giorgetti’s nicely ballsy Clytemnestra had to clump up and down a staircase like a pantomime dame. The role of Aegisthus (promising Philippe Maymat) was cut and stripped of subtlety. Orestes and Pylade were reduced to gay stereotypes.

I felt sorriest for the chorus, decorative females forced to drift round Electra in polite consternation. The best feature was Eric Neveux’s music, yet the chorus’s interesting mix of semi-gospel and Arab music was poorly integrated.

The translation was peppered with false notes, such as the Preceptor’s “action plan”. And when the queen screeched “non, je ne regrette rien”, the audience dissolved into laughter.

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