Sophocles’ Electra, Alive and Well After 2,000 Years

At best, it’s a vague insight into the dramatist’s furious, uncompromising antihero who’s “isolated” from conventional high society (represented here by Vogue fashionistas glued to cellphones, rather than the tacky Paris Hilton set).

How might Mr. van Hove have directed the scene in Electra when Sophocles goes off on a long, apparently mad tangent? Orestes’ tutor spreads word of his pupil’s death so that Orestes can sneak back into town. The tutor therefore invents a riveting story about how Orestes was killed in a chariot race. The wonder is that every detail in his description of the death seems so excitingly and tragically real that we—the audience—believe it even though we know it’s a lie.

Mr. Stein lets the story speak for itself. But if Mr. van Hove had been at the helm, he might have done something like this:

Orestes and the tutor discuss their ruse on cellphones. A video shows the actors playing them chatting backstage. The tutor enters an anonymous gray box (the palace of Mycenae), where he relates the story of the chariot race simultaneously illustrated by a Second Life Avatar of Orestes dying in a specially thrilling race. Hearing the tragic news, a berserk Electra then wrecks the stage with garbage and dreck, rolling around in it as a symbolic show of abject misery.

To my mind, these shallow tricks amount to a pandering, panicky modernity that fails to trust words, the playwright who wrote them or the audience who’s there to hear them. It’s a theater sans complexity or ambiguity, lest it be frowned upon as undemocratic and elitist—like the poor, proud, disenfranchised playwright himself.

But what does the cutting-edge work of Mr. van Hove & Co. really amount to but a style with its own conventions? All styles are known, and all conventions are … conventional. We see them on display in trendy, crowd-pleasing productions every day: the video screens and computers, the random ladders and wires, the symbolic collages and dream sequences, the stagy effects and “deconstruction.”

It’s a closed system.

The enduring value of a director like Peter Stein is that his theater is an open one. By trusting the unique voice of the playwright—and striving to understand dramas, like Sophocles’ Electra, that are larger than him—his remarkable productions always remain open to the possibility of truly astonishing things.