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ELECTRA (article first published : 2000-10-21)

I confess that I’m not well versed in the works of “The Greeks”. The names of the characters are a mouthful, for a start! I have to admit, though, that the problems that existed in those ancient days - such as the treatment of women in wartime - seem to be just as rife today.

It is upon this foundation that Mervyn McMurtry has directed his production of Electra which runs from October 19 to 25 in the Square Space Theatre at the University of Natal Durban campus.

The play runs to about 85 minutes without interval but it’s a good idea to get seated about five minutes before “curtain up” to take in the atmosphere. The cast members, in shackles and huddled on the sandy floor surrounded by hazard tape, are presided over by a modern-day guard (Manqoba Mchunu) armed with a rifle. On a television set can be seen clips from Lebanon and Prague war zones interspersed with mindless commercials, researched and recorded by Wiaan de Beer.

This Electra is adapted from translations of the play by Sophocles with additional material from related plays by Aeschylus and Euripides. Drawing on testimonies by victims of atrocities from Bosnia and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as from other Greek plays, Mervyn has reworked the choral odes to offer a more contemporary viewpoint. The prologue sees a forensic pathologist (played with cool efficiency by Clare Cassidy) explaining the finer details of the murder of the blanket-covered corpse on the mortuary trolley next to her.

At its most basic, Electra is the story told by a young woman (Electra) of the murder of her father, King Agamemnon, by her mother Queen Clytemnestra (played with proud disdain by Welile Tembe) and her lover Aegisthus (tall and imposing Ivan Boniaszczuk). Clytemnestra has her reasons, one of which was the sacrifice by Agamemnon of her young daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess Artemis in order to raise a wind to allow the army to sail for Troy to rescue the abducted Helen … but that’s another story! One that didn’t rely on goddesses and sacrifices to raise winds but involved the smart ruse of a Trojan horse!

Back to Electra. Those who oppose the new regime, the most vociferous of whom is Electra, have been reduced to slaves. Dressed in black robes with red ribboned-wrists signifying snakes of blood and providing strong and emotional backing to the story line are Raeesa Aniff, Livhuwani Joy Maphiri, Tamryn Taylor, Leigh Tredger and Seren McMurtry.

Electra manages to send to safety her brother Orestes played by Lloyd O’Connor who nicely controls his disintegration to madness. However, she is unable to convey the enormity of their situation to her sister, the beauty-conscious Chrysothemis – a consistent and gentle performance by Sacha Stokes. As Orestes’ friend, Tyron Akal is a sympathetic and intense Pylades.

The intimate venue lends itself well to this production where the front row of the audience at times is no less than a couple of feet away from the performers. The cast alternates but at tonight’s show, Candice Pankhurst put in a powerful and controlled performance as Electra showing visible proof of a very worthwhile actress to come, although she does need to work on her breath control.

Electra is a fairly harrowing tale of murder, revenge, recrimination, guilt and filial hatred but both director and student cast have obviously worked hard and maintain a strong tension throughout. It’s worth seeing but do remember that the theatre can be a bit chilly. Tickets at the door or phone Claudette on (031) 260-3134.




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