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Wanamaker Haymaker

Harry Haun American Playbill, 1998-01-01

In a mesmerizing performance - part unspeakable anguish, part murderous rage - Zoë Wanamaker breathes fire into Sophocles' Electra.

Yet another thing we can thank the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s for is Zoë Wanamaker's stunningly versatile stage career, which has occurred almost completely outside our purview - a whole ocean away - on the various theatrical venues of England.

Born in New York City, the second of three daughters of actor-director Sam Wanamaker and radio soap star Charlotte Holland, Wanamaker was three when she was rudely uprooted by the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (then zealously dedicated to driving believed Communists from the entertainment workplace) and transplanted on British soil.

Her father was directing Madelaine Carroll on Broadway in Goodbye, My Fancy when he was labelled as a 'pinko' by New York Daily News columnist Ed Sullivan.

'Dad wrote a letter back, which was foolish, and that's when the committee started to get interested in him,' Wanamaker remembers.  'He was filming in England when he got subpoenaed to go before the committee, and he refused.'  That refusal cost Wanamaker a career in America, but he made a very nice one for himself in England where he and his family eventually chose to live.

Against the advice of both parents, Zoe Wanamaker took up the greasepaint a good 30 years ago and has since married into it (British character actor Gawn Grainger).  She now bites her words like a born Brit, but a hint of natural Americanism still persists.  'I was brought up in Britain; I was trained there - but I keep my US passport close to my heart because I enjoy working in America and want to keep that option.'

It's an option she has exercised twice: she played half-sister to Jane Lapotaire's Tony-award winning Piaf in 1981, and she joined Alec Baldwin and Joseph Maher in a 1986 retooling of Loot.  Both times she made the Tony running, and both times she lost to Swoosie Kurtz.  The bright sprites Zoë Wanamaker advanced in those plays do not begin to prepare you for her fire-and-light show as Electra at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.  Clearly, this is the deep end of the drama pool, and she splashes about spectacularly in a performance which had already won the Olivier award and seems destined for a Tony.

How Wanamaker and her director, David Leveaux, happened to alight on Electra is, she allows, 'a silly story; we were going to do Suddenly, Last Summer.  Then, at lunch, he said,  "Have you ever thought of doing Electra?  I think it's about time you had a good scream."  No doubt about it, Wanamaker becomes Electra.  As Agamemnon's vengeance-driven daughter, she rips into the role with unbridled savagery, stalking about the stage in the outsized overcoat of her murdered father, goading her brother Orestes into avenging that killing with more killing - namely, the culprits responsible: their mother, Clytemnestra and the mother's lover Aegisthus.  The sound and fury were there from the outset, apparently.

As a London critic noted, Wanamaker 'heaves her heart into her mouth with every line.'  Electra first struck Leveaux when he was watching a documentary film about Sarajevo.  One scene in particular - a young girl putting toys and chocolate on the grave of her brother - echoed the grave gifts of Electra, and he suddenly saw a way to shave away 2,000 years and make Sophocles' work relevant to our times.  A spare, accessible new adaptation by Frank (Someone Who'll Watch Over Me) McGuinness, who streamlined A Doll's House for Janet McTeer's award-winning revival, seconded this modern sensibility.

All these elements came together in August 1997, when Leveaux launched his Wanamaker haymaker at Chichester's Minerva Theatre; then he moved it on to London's Donmar Warehouse for more acclaim.  That one-two punch was followed last Fall with a McCarter Theatre production (Princeton, NJ) in which he surrounded his star with a class cast that includes Claire Bloom (Clytemnestra), Michael Cumpsty (Orestes), Pat Carroll (Chorus of Mycenae), Stephen Spinella (Servant to Orestes), Marin Hinkle (Chrysothemis), and Daniel Oreskes (Aegisthus).  The triumphantly cheered results begged for Broadway - and got it!

The stage sandpile in which this bloody tragedy is played out is the rubble directly outside the palace, but Johan Engel's set and costume designs deliberately blur the dimensions of time and space.  'It could be Sarajevo, or Northern Ireland, anywhere, really,' Wanamaker contends.  'What David is saying - what we as a company are saying -  is: what happens to the children of war?  These people are the result of war, continuous war.  What will happen to the children of Northern Ireland?  Will they grow up to be terrorists and monsters?  War perpetuates something.  Sometimes, you even forget why it started in the first place, what the actual argument was about.  What do these people become?  How do they grow up?  How do they go through life as normal human beings after what they've been through?'

The role leaves Wanamaker predictably drained, and time is required in the decompression chamber after every performance, before she can rejoin the living.  'It's very demanding because of the nature of the piece.  I mean, I can't go partying.  I have to live like a monk.  I have to preserve my voice and my energy because, although it's only 90 minutes, it's an intense 90 minutes.  There is always ten percent that I try and hold back, but the rest of it is all out there.'

And the effects linger on.  'I didn't imagine that I was taking the part home with me, but when we finished Electra the first time, my back went out; I got the flu; I slept for five days non-stop.  This part is a killer, but she's also a meteoric soul, a luminous heroine.'

On Wanamaker's dressing room table is an arcane photograph from the turn of the century, a gift from the show's designer.  Peering out from it is an infant girl wearing a flowing gown and a fixed expression.  'Johan gave me this picture at Princeton.  He says it's the little Electra, so I keep her in the dressing room.  She doesn't come out.  That's how I keep my sanity.'

With thanks to Kerrie for this interview.

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