Zoë Wanamaker’s Electrifying Electra

A performance of unarguable greatness is taking place under our noses. Let me not hesitate. Zoë Wanamaker’s Electra is a miraculous achievement–one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen.

Should you, by chance, disagree, one or the other of us will have to shoot ourselves. You! But it will not come to that. Ms. Wanamaker, in David Leveaux’s remarkable production of Sophocles’ Electra at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, has the audience spellbound. Who would have thought that a 2,400-year-old story of matricide would prove so popular–and on Disneyfied Broadway?

There’s a thought. Neither Sophocles nor Ms. Wanamaker are star names in New York. (Until now.) Which is why the usual bottom-line producers wouldn’t invest in the production (though it had already played to acclaim in England and at the McCarter Theater, at Princeton University). If only the ruling elites of Broadway would have a little more faith–not just in our intelligence, but in Theater itself. The production shows the way! And the packed houses and extended run are a sweet justice.

Ms. Wanamaker’s Electra is a wonderfully original creation–an elemental, furious creature , both savage and childlike, a gaping wound, a broken image of obsessed eternal grief. She is a physically small actress giving a performance of staggering size. I had known her only in lighter roles–her gamine looks imply the impish rather than the tragic. Yet from her first astonishing appearance, it’s clear that she will compel us to meet her on a different, higher plane.

She first appears wearing the mask of tragedy. She stands on a ladder, peering into the palace of her murdered father. She’s dwarfed by the frayed, old overcoat that she wears. Of course! It must be her beloved father’s coat–worn as a living memory, a talisman, a shroud.

She descends in the white mask (which seems strangely natural to us). She is like a Beckett tramp. But her spiked hair reveals a bloody scalp. This is an Electra who tears her hair out with inconsolable grief. Then she removes the tragic mask, and reveals her own face of terrible tragic destiny.

Her plaintive rasping voice can frighten and touch us deeply. She is uncluttered and unfettered–an essence. She not only conveys pain but is its personification. Her first words are delivered to the gods as a calm ritual of primal furious need, like a fervent unanswered prayer: “Divine light, sweet air, again hear my pain.” In her father’s death is her death.

Sophocles’ Electra –the spare 90-minute adaptation is by Frank McGuinness–is a story of obsessive vengeance in a society that has lost its moral bearings. Clytemnestra, the hated mother of Electra, lives with her lover, Aegisthus. They murdered Agamemnon–Electra’s father and Clytemnestra’s husband–on his victorious return from Troy. The unforgiving Electra–”The world has turned bad and so have I”–awaits the return of her brother, Orestes, and longed-for retribution.

There are fascinating shades of Hamlet : The murdered King is replaced by the Queen and her lover; the heir’s fate is vengeance and a descent into further chaos. There’s the Freudian interpretation of excessive parental love: the father and Electra, the mother and Hamlet. Greek drama, after all, is an ancient form of public psychology. But at center, Electra is a timeless moral debate and argument about fierce opposites: betrayal and forgiveness; vengeance and compromise; memory and forgetting; honoring the dead and honoring the living.

These are vast, universal issues, which should need no justification today in modern terms. Greek drama is modern (though it’s obviously not bourgeois tragedy in search of “closure”). The truth and relentless grief of Electra is as contemporary as the ashes in Cambodia or Sarajevo; its fractured moral landscape is all around us; its family divided by a form of psychic madness and unresolved hatreds isn’t unknown in our own families.

It’s why Mr. Leveaux, the director of Electra , points out that the play cannot be made “more convenient by making it more conversational.” It cannot be made more convenient; a question of matricide is most inconvenient . These perpetual dilemmas of making great and already popular dramas somehow easier, more accessible, more “relevant” to modern times, are wearisome. They cannot be easier–as pitiless fate and profound grief cannot be trivialized.

It’s a question of balance between the present in the past–and the past in the present–and Mr. Leveaux has got most of it splendidly right. The expressionist wreck of a set, designed by Johan Engels, evokes the ruinous wars of a timeless, blighted landscape literally rooted in the earth. I was less happy with the intended coup de théâtre when the inside of the palace is ultimately revealed. Mr. Leveaux has no need of such theatricality when his production is characterized by its essential simplicity and stillness.

Then again, though there are some weaknesses in the ensemble, Claire Bloom is a beautiful, formidably reasonable Clytemnestra in perfect steely counterpoint to Ms. Wanamaker in their key scenes together. “I am not a cruel woman,” she says (and has us believing her). “But I do abuse you because you abuse me so often …”

The secret to Ms. Wanamaker’s superb performance is that she is uncannily both an adult and a child. What was murderously done to her as a child has never been resolved in her adulthood. In an elemental sense, she remains dangerously unformed. She remains an unbalanced child of grief whose tragedy is that she cannot be anything else.

Racine’s Phèdre is another Greek tragedy of obsession–incest. But the overwrought London production with Diana Rigg was a disappointment in its limited run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theater. In director Jonathan Kent’s heady attempts to blow away the so-called cobwebs, he has reduced the classic tragedy merely to the level of the frenzied neurotic and the pseudo-chic, kicking it all up a notch with a form of acting histrionics that I thought had died unmourned in the 19th century.

Maria Bjornson has, for one, costumed poor Toby Stephens in pleated black vinyl and leather so that his Hippolytus looks as if he’s leaping about in a gay version of The Pirates of Penzance . Princess Aricia’s off-the-shoulder number with the ludicrous, voluminous train has an actress inside–Joanna Roth, who works the costume. Diana Rigg is more the crone cocktail look with bobbed red hair by Vidal Sassoon.

But that’s enough of fashion. This is the first production I’ve seen in which its leading actors beat up the scenery. Ms. Rigg and Mr. Stephens do not chew it, they hit it, they hug it, they pose against it (in profile). Passions are running high, you see. Too high! Mr. Stephens sets off at such a frantic pace and tone he leaves himself no room to maneuver. When his mum confesses to him, in effect: “I’m in love with you,” she might just as well have said, “Hate your outfit.”

Others in the ensemble are superior, particularly the fearsome Oenone of the immensely assured veteran Barbara Jefford, herself a distinguished Phèdre. Diana Rigg follows her Mayfair Medea of recent memory with her flagellating Phèdre, and the outcome is theatrically mixed.

The swoops of her voice spitting out Ted Hughes’ tumble of earthy, venomous words in the new free-form adaptation, the thrilling attack and musicality of Ms. Rigg, are beyond question. Her self-loathing, convulsive disbelief at her illicit incestuousness is coldly effective, her frenzied jealousy witheringly right. Yet, for all that, she fails to touch us. We remain remote from her polished, too stylized tragedy. The key scene with her stepson fails to ignite or shame. Ms. Rigg conveys a response to obsessive love, not the thing itself.

Her death scene is thrown away, which is odd. She appears to nod off upright in a peculiar chair. With all the hysterics going on, she might have given us a good death scene. In his 1950’s review of Edwige Feuillère’s Phèdre–Ms. Feuillère was considered the greatest actress on earth by some–Ken Tynan liked only one moment. “No one drops dead like Mme. Feuillère,” he wrote approvingly of her mortal slump .

The last image of Zoë Wanamaker’s Electra is of blood dripping onto her Greek mask from the heavens. We needn’t belabor the point. Her magnificent performance stands comparison with anyone’s, and stands alone.