STRATFORD, Ont. • In one theatre, we have Christopher Plummer reminiscing about the writings that have nurtured and inspired him through 82 years of life.
A few blocks away, in another venue, we have the 2,400-year-old Sophocles tragedy Elektra, reasserting its timelessness in a production with astonishing fusion of sight and sound that should even convert those who profess to hate classical Greek theatre.
It’s an interesting pairing for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s August openings — two offerings that may seem poles apart in sensibility. But there is a link between Plummer’s elegantly witty one-man show and Sophocles’s blood-soaked saga of family carnage.
Both events celebrate the power of language.
In the case of the Sophocles tragedy, words are the driving force as a bereaved Elektra unleashes her fury at the mother (Clytemnestra) and stepfather (Aegisthus) who have murdered Agamemnon, her father. Actress Yanna McIntosh portrays this vessel of wrath as a troubling and troublesome creature whose emotional recklessness threatens havoc.
This is a defiant, volcanic portrait of a woman denied by the strictures of her culture from assuaging her rage and grief through direct homicidal action. Her weapons are confined to words — words intended to goad and inflame while she yearns for her lost brother Orestes to return and wreak vengeance.
The intensity of Elektra’s lamentations help us understand what Anne Carson — the distinguished Canadian poet responsible for the play’s compelling English translation — meant when she likened these cries to “bones of sound.” Indeed, the whole production emerges as a stunning auditory experience, thanks to Greek director Thomas Moschopoulos.
The riveting contribution of the seven-member chorus of women, in many ways the collective conscience of the play, is far removed from the type of production that gives Greek tragedy the mouldering odour of the museum case. Ritual is still present, but it is harnessed to a vibrant theatricality.
Consider the seductive use of sound patterns: Peter Hutt, excellent as an aging scholar, accompanying his account of a fatal chariot race with the relentless thump of his staff; the eerie rhythms woven by the chorus as they repeatedly slam shut their folding chairs; the sound of a young warrior’s fist thumping painfully on his bare chest. And, of course, there is the evocative musical contribution of Greek composer Kornilios Selamsis.
The evening is a feast for the eye as well, with designer Ellie Papageorgakopoulou’s visuals running an eclectic gamut. At one extreme, the dismembered statue of a Greek deity lies in pieces on a huge slab in the centre of the Tom Patterson Theatre stage. But in contrast to such classical rigidity, there are costumes that drag us into our own contemporary experience — and often do so impudently. Ian Lake — portraying a solemn Orestes, that designated instrument of bloody retribution — returns from the dead resembling a short-trousered schoolboy en route to a new bout of blood-spilling. A flamboyant, nostril-curling Seana McKenna, having the time of her life as the gleefully murderous Clytemnestra, exudes both attitude and fashion power with her expensive shades, tailored suit, silk scarf and high heels, whereas McIntosh’s Elektra looks like a dowdy frump.
Indeed, the performances — not quite stylized, not quite naturalistic — are all arresting. And there’s a terrific cameo from Graham Abbey, his murderous Aigisthos all smirk and swagger until the reality of his own looming demise dawns on him.
Meanwhile the atmosphere over at the Avon Theatre is more sedate as a velvet-jacketed Christopher Plummer shares his lifelong love of language with us. A Word or Two is the name of the entertainment he has devised, and all he really asks of us is that we join him in a meander through memory — through some of the literature that has inspired and sustained him beginning with the days when, as a shy, introverted child growing up in Montreal, he found release in reading…..