Electra et cetera

Mark Fisher tunes in to the buzz of uneasy excitement about Deborah Warner’s uncompromising Electra starring an emotionally tempestuous Fiona Shaw.

Back in 1988, director Deborah Warner and actor Fiona Shaw worked together for the first time at The Pit, the studio-sized theatre in the RSC’s London Barbican complex. From these relatively inauspicious beginnings, the play, Sophocles’s Electra, was recently revived for a large-scale international tour and hailed unanimously by the London critics as a triumphant, if disturbing, modern interpretation that injects life into the traditionally dusty and distant world of Greek tragedy. ‘The most harrowing production of a Greek tragedy I have seen,’ confessed Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph, having forced himself not to avert his eyes from Shaw’s emotional torrents and then left the theatre wobbly-kneed.

And Spencer’s reaction is not unique. Fiona Shaw’s performance as Electra the powerless daughter in perpetual mourning for her father, Agamemnon, who has been murdered by her mother, Clytemnestra starts at an unearthly pitch of torment and ploughs relentlessly on from there. Those scratches on her anorexic body.

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The New Moves Across Europe dance festival brings three companies to Glasgow over the next fortnight: Mark Murphy’s V-Tol, Puertas Abiertas lrom



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Fiona Shaw is Electra

throws herself mercilessly to the floor in a brutal physical realisation of her frustrated desire for revenge. This, by all accounts, is acting at its most extreme; not pleasant, not even sympathetic, but cruelly compelling. .

Against Hildegard Bechtler’s stark set, with white-washed walls and heavy iron door more akin to a torture chamber. and the looming presence of a five-strong chorus of slave women, Shaw’s performance is a painful lament to the inevitability of human suffering. It’s clearly a bravura interpretation, but one that has been made possible by the influence ofdirector Deborah Warner, whose work was last seen in Scotland when the National Theatre toured King Lear starring Brian Cox. Shaw is fulsome in her praise for Warner who carries the torch for female directors in a traditionally male-dominated RSC. ‘Being directed by her gives you the sense of making a move forward,’ Shaw has said. ‘Like a wallflower sitting on the edge ofthe ballroom waiting to be asked to dance. Now and then you re asked by a particularly handsome prince and


you can flourish. Deborah is a very releasing person. I’d like to have a lifelong professional association with her.’

As well as Electra, the two have worked together on a National Theatre production of Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan and a highly-rated Hedda Gabler, where again Shaw turned in an

emotionally bleak performance. Like Peter Brook, Warner believes in discovering ideas in rehearsal rather than crudely imposing them from above. Her style is characterised by moments which if handled incorrectly could seem flashy, but which under her guidance seem natural and organic. The time when Brian Cox as King Lear transformed a bauble from his hat into a clown’s red nose was one such simple action that seemed to sum up Shakespeare’s twin themes of tragedy and comedy, and likewise in Electra, the smashing of a pomegranate against the stone floor serves as a gory premonition of the human carnage to come. Brian Cox has commented that Warner’s working style ‘demands a great deal of focus, of concentrated work,’ but also that it is very open. ‘She’s scrupulously honest about what she knows and what she doesn’t,’ he has said. ‘Perhaps because she’s a woman, she’s more open. She doesn’t have that male thing of insisting on making her point clear. She has incredible chutzpah.’

And no doubt her gender has also influenced the drawing out of the female parts in Electra which dominate the production, not just in the title role, but also in the chorus and in Sheila Gish’s brassy, sensuous reading of Clytemnestra. The vision is extreme, but there is a frightening truthfulness about it that compels an audience to watch. Like the production, Kenneth McLeish’s translation has been praised for its stark and direct clarity, which again adds to the play‘s power as Fiona Shaw has said: ‘The very size of the language - Bitter the day more than all other days is not casual stuff- has a force, in the biting of the very words, that makes your voice travel.’

Electra, Tramway, Glasgow, Wed 12—Sat15 Feb.

ostensibly its subject?

dozen lresh eggs in the production, and more especially the movement, seemed instead to symbolise new lite and a dangerous way ol living. What connection was there between the speedy tumbles, twists and collisions and the old man in the opening and closing lilm sequence who was

Although Page has spent a little time

new contemporary dance style, although it is not popular with Scottish choreographers, which may be one oi the reasons they are under-appreciated. But it’s nothing more than an exciting medium, and the medium ol any art should surely match its theme. Di course, some choreographers claim to explore this particular style at movement simply tor

Spain and Kristina Page's Krakeel. Page is otten seen in photographs head down, llying through the air floor-wards, apparently at 99mph. This image and her choreographic style is becoming tamiliar to Scottish audiences alter a spate of companies such as Wim Vandekeybus, La La La Human Steps, DVD and Mark Murphy performed here. The record audience at Vandekeybus’ show in January implies it’s a popular style, maybe

because the movement is daring. tast- moving, unpredictable and alive. But how long will it be before the riskiness oi it pales, and a discerning audience starts to look for content, structure and comprehensibility? Vandekeybus's latest show, Always the Same Lies -which opened the New Moves season - purported to be about loneliness and old age, but the several

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working with Vandekeybus, and will be perlorrning in Murphy’s new show, she seems to have kept a closer rain on her creative instincts than some oi the more experienced choreographers. The Need to Hetum, her new piece, shows considerable coherence in her chosen subject matter ol personal relationships. There are plenty of risky tests, but with gentle, sensitive moments drawing attention to a flutter ol eye-lashes or a quiet touch. Dancers are quickly mastering this

its own sake. In that case, we can all settle back and enjoy bodies llying through the air at break-neck speeds. But i hope we will see something more than this in evenings oi contemporary dance to come. (Tamsin Grainger)

Krakeel and Puertas Abiertas, New Moves Dance Theatre, Glasgow, Thurs twat 15 Feb.

Mark Murphy's V-Tol, New Moves Dance Theatre, Glasgow, Thurs 6—Sat 8 Feb.


The List 31 January- 13 February 1992 41