The recent and sadly brief visit of Peter Stein’s wonderful Electra with the National Theater of Greece was a joy to me, if only because this supreme production returned the theater to its life source—namely the dramatist. Nothing, I believe, could be timelier or more important.
Contra our current avant-garde movement—as well as the Regietheater (director’s theater) of his German homeland, where classic texts are routinely deconstructed and modernized—Mr. Stein steadfastly believes in the primacy of words and therefore of the playwright. In the case of his staggeringly simple, frightening and unadorned Electra, the words belong to Sophocles.
How astonishing, how retro, to experience a 2,000-year-old story told as the dramatist wrote it—and be blown away by its eternal, ritual message of terrible grief and vengeance.
If arguing in favor of respect for the text makes Mr. Stein an old-fashioned traditionalist, I, for one, am glad to join him. In its unbearable, elemental force, his Electra is the finest production of a Greek tragedy I’ve ever seen. It left me literally shaking.
There will be other Electras, of course, that differ from Mr. Stein’s. But sometimes we’re lucky enough to see a show that appears so stunningly right we cannot imagine it being done any other way. Perhaps this feeling might last for an entire generation, and that could well be the glorious case here.
Yet this was Mr. Stein’s theatrical debut in New York (though he did stage Verdi’s Falstaff at B.A.M. in 1989). What took him so long—or was it us?
THE 70-YEAR-OLD PETER STEIN WAS THE junior member of an extraordinary group of European avant-garde directors: Ingmar Bergman, Giorgio Strehler, Peter Brook and Mr. Stein—the gang of four of their era, and arguably of many an era. Bergman and Strehler have died, leaving Mr. Brook (who’s still accused—wrongly—of wrecking sacred texts) and the masterly Mr. Stein.
I believe that in his Electra, he’s saying more with light and rhythm and unfiltered language and emotion than he could with a thousand technological effects. His is the true storyteller’s art.
Charles Mee of the recent, modish Iphigenia 2.0 argues in the name of contemporary relevance that Shakespeare and the Greeks ripped off and reimagined other people’s stories—so why not him? No reason. But I would respond that Shakespeare improved on the stories he lifted. With respect, for all Mr. Mee’s gifts, he’s no Euripides. He’s a lesser poet whose Paris Hilton version of the house of Iphigenia only brought the superficially blatant to the banquet table and dumbed down the message of a great play.
Trevor Nunn—a classicist by training—made the same reductive error of judgment by inserting two new scenes of his own into his Royal Shakespeare Company productions of King Lear and The Seagull. If these interpolations had worked—if they’d brought fresh meaning and insight to the well-known plays—it would have been a cause for celebration and delight. But each of Mr. Nunn’s contrived, simplistic scenes made the tragic within both the Shakespeare and the Chekhov merely, and cheaply, melodramatic. The director’s conceit went against the very intention of the plays.
Mr. Stein isn’t a purist, but in his fidelity to texts like Sophocles’ Electra he’s saying, in effect, that Sophocles knows a thing or two more than he does. Mr. Mee, Mr. Nunn and the Flemish avant-gardist Ivo van Hove would doubtless say the same about Euripides, Shakespeare, Chekhov and Molière.
It’s partly a question of degree, then. (And talent.) Mr. van Hove’s updated, garbage-strewn version of Molière’s The Misanthrope attempts to make the play new and contemporary via numerous technological effects. The sensationalist director remains true to Tony Harrison’s modern translation of the text—but turns the great play itself into his own video reality show with a mundane theme that has absolutely nothing to do with Molière: Technology isolates us all.
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.
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