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Commentary

Mark Glubke Electra: A New Adaptation By Frank McGuinness, 1998-01-01

Mark Glubke:  I read an interview in which you said, 'Greek plays scare me... they make me feel stupid and unintelligent.'  That being the case, how did you come to play Electra?

Zo Wanamaker:  Actually, [director] David [Leveaux] and I were working on Suddenly Last Summer, and we were having lunch with Duncan Weldon, who was then director of the Chichester Festival Theatre.  Halfway through lunch, David said, 'Have you ever thought of doing Electra?'  I said no and for that reason: because Greek drama made me feel unintelligent.  I never understood them.  To me, it was a bunch of people running around with masks and togas and a lot of moaning.  I had also been asked to play Medea about four years previously.  The first line in the play, Medea's entrance line, was 'aye, aye, aye, aye, aye.'  And I thought, I couldn't do that...that would just make me laugh.  I couldn't take that seriously.  I didn't know where to even begin to experiment with making that sound.  So, I rejected it.  Then David said to me, 'I think it's about time you had a good scream,' which was a very daunting thing for him to say.  So, we went to a bookshop and we bought a translation of Electra, and I looked at it.  My first concern was that it had just been done about six years previously and I was frightened of being compared to that production.  And then I thought, there are a lot of people playing Hamlet, there are a lot of people playing Juliet, there are a lot of people performing all sorts of classic plays.  Yet I quickly realized that if I did decide to do it, it would have to be adapted.  And David said, 'I know just the person,' and he asked Frank McGuinness.  From what I am told, Frank went to the meeting with David prepared not to do it and then halfway through the meeting got very excited about the whole thing.  And he finished the adaptation in six weeks.  He works very fast.  Of course, when I saw Frank's adaptation, I was convinced.  What he had done is make Electra very colloquial.  What I love about Frank's adaptation is he's pared Sophocles down to the fishbone.  He's taken out the extraneous gods and goddesses.  He's taken a lot of the words and adjectives that don't particularly matter and crystallized them down to the essential.  That is the power of this adaptation: the nakedness of the language while at the same time retaining a wonderful sense of poetry.  It's very bold, very powerful and, because of that, for me, it became a new play.  There are a lot of 'Frankisms' in it; there is one line that I know was his mother's.  But he's made it accessible and direct and honest and clear.  For an audience who doesn't know very much about Greek drama, it is startlingly modern.  That's why I think it's brilliant.

MG:  He's managed to pare down the language, yet push up the emotional quotient.

ZW:  That's right.

MG:  I think the audience feels this production more deeply than they have felt previous productions.

ZW:  That's right.  It's the simplicity of it.  The simpler the better, I think.  Simplicity is more powerful.  You see that in painting, you see that in wonderful poetry, you see that in great writing.  The sparsity is much more powerful than all that other mess.

MG:  Did you happen to see A Doll's House?

ZW:  Yes, and I thought it also was very well done.  What he [McGuinness] did with A Doll's House was exactly the same thing: he made that much more modern, it went into the ear more easily and the audience understood it more innately.  I think that final scene particularly rang bells with the audience and I don't think that happens so strongly in other productions.

MG:  Again, people felt something deeper than they usually feel.

ZW:  And the same thing happens in Electra: the language that he's used has that direct simplicity and power.  Having said that, I must tell you there are some Classics scholars who fault the adaptation for not being literal enough.  I've received a few letters from people who don't like it.  One person took exception to the line, 'Don't worry, you won't see a smile on my face.'  They then wrote out the actual translation into English and said they thought it was better.  It was not better.  It was crap, to be perfectly honest.  It was long and had no urgency, no reality at all compared to what Frank had done.

MG:  Have you worked with Frank before?

ZW:  Never.  But we want to work together again.

MG:  As you know, the reviews have been stunning.  Many are calling this the performance of a lifetime.  I am curious to know how you created this Electra.

ZW:  I went to see a German production of Electra, the opera, and it was wild.  The soprano was just sensational.  I was impressed by the sheer physicality of the role...especially as played against that many violins in the orchestra.  The moment when Clytemnestra is being killed, the violins are all screeching on a sustained note for a very long time.  As a member of the audience, just to watch that is a theatrical, almost visceral experience.  At the end of the production, when Clytemnestra is killed, blood started spurting from the set, pouring down this steel wall.  Then, Electra danced in it and rolled in it!  Now, that was just brilliant!  For me, that was terribly exciting.  Just the nakedness of that image and the horror of it.  The dramatic power was just incredible.  Then, I went to see De La Guarda, a group of aerialists from Argentina, who are just extraordinary.  When they came to London, it was a real event.  Their performance was sexy, powerful, political and remarkably energetic.  So, those two productions greatly influenced me when I started working on Electra.  I had those two images in my head.  There was a physicality about this production that came to me.  When I create a role, I usually do quite a bit of research.  For this play, I did a little bit, but I didn't go any further than I thought would be necessary for the bare essentials of this play.  I wanted it to be completely new and fresh.  To me, it's about a soul who is troubled, an avenging angel, a terrorist and yet a heroine of huge proportions.  David's vision of it is that the play is about love, families and the destruction of families.  For me, it raises the question of what becomes of the children of war.  What will become of those kids when they become 20?  What have we created?

MG:  The piece David wrote for the Playbill was very well done.  In it, he says a great play doesn't only capture its own era, but it serves as a prophecy for future generations.  What do you think Electra has to say to our time?

ZW:  I will say this: we are constantly confronted by the story of Electra.  One example: in a few weeks time. the motion picture academy going to give a lifetime achievement award to Elia Kazan.  Now, for a lot of people, this is betrayal.  He named names.  He was the cause of many people's misery, the cause of their careers being taken away, the reason they were put in prison.  Some people even committed suicide.  Stories like this force us to confront what we would have done in the same situation.  If we were German in the 1930s, would we have become Nazis out of fear?  If we were Jews, would we have escaped?  Who knows.  It is difficult to say unless you are in that situation.  So, I really don't know what this play has to say to our time.  What Sophocles offers us in Electra is a beautifully crafted piece of work.  First, you meet Orestes and the tutor who tell you the story of what they plan to do.  Then you meet Electra, who is near death with grief.  It's hatred that keeps her alive, if only just, and the hope that her brother will return.  And then you meet her sister, who has learned to compromise and who is the peacemaker.  And then you meet the mother, whose child was murdered by Electra's father and, therefore, has another story.  So, the audience then is confused.  And that is where we are in society: constantly confused.  Electra, however, is never confused about what she wants.  But do we take that path of vengeance?  If so, what does it do for us in the end?  What does it do for Electra?  What happens when vengeance has been wrought?  Does it make her happy?  Can she go on with her life?  What does she become after that?  So, it's difficult to say what Electra has to say to our time other than it raises all sorts of wonderful questions about ourselves.  In this century, we have seen ourselves more nakedly than we have the courage to admit and we have devised the most beautiful means to clothe ourselves against our nakedness.  At the end of our century, even these clothes are in tatters and through them we notice our nakedness again and we know suddenly we are primitive.  Electra is the story of our primitive self and our primitive anger.  It shows us that accepting our nakedness is the only way to an authentic future, the only chance for human beauty.

MG:  I think the thing that haunted me most about Electra was the emphasis on vengeance.  In the Judeo-Christian worldview, vengeance is not something we are taught to seek.  Yet I can't help but wonder if there is something about the notion of vengeance that can speak to us today.

ZW:  Vengeance could be called justice, couldn't it?  It brings to mind [former Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet, who was arrested in London just six months ago for crimes against humanity.  He's in his 80s.  He's been going back and forth to England and they've been protecting him.  And he's been responsible for the deaths of many thousand people.  Do you then allow this man to carry on living in the lap of luxury while thousands of people have lost their brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts?  Vengeance is not a nice thing.  It doesn't get you anywhere.  But we have to find some way to come to terms with our hatred or it will destroy us.  In some ways, it has destroyed Electra.

MG:  And, let's be honest, there is something very cleansing about vengeance.

ZW:  Yes.

MG:  When it is announced that 'the deed is done' there is almost a sense of exhilaration.

ZW:  Yes.  The violence in Electra is the violence of the inconsolable heart.  She is a woman for whom love is an absolute and beauty is a lost possession that is linked to the loss of her father.  She is a heroine, a terrorist and a meteoric soul.  Her very contradictions are the source of her luminosity and fascination.  I have not seen many Greek dramas, really, and now I am interested to see more.  But it must connect with the audience.  Unless it connects with an audience, I am not interested.  Live performances should make you feel nourished in some way.  I feel that unless you come out feeling nourished, there is no point.  That is what we search for in the theatre: we want to feel uplifted or challenged or fed.

MG:  I recently read an interview with Brian Dennehy in which he spoke about his performance in Death of a Salesman.  He said the hard part is not so much the physical strain - though his is also a very physical performance - but the emotional strain.  He said that it does deplete you in some way.  How have you been affected by your performance in Electra?

ZW:  Physically, what it did for me is I just fell apart after I finished the London run.  Aches and pains and my back went out.  Emotionally, you just have to do it.  It is exhausting; however, I've learned that if I keep my physical stamina up, then my mental stamina just follows.  Besides, your body will tell you when you've had enough.  Ultimately, though, when David said, 'It's about time you had a good scream,' he was absolutely right.  My father died six years ago and my mother died four or five months before I started rehearsing for this play.  So I had a lot to relate to and a lot of grief to give.  There was definitely a sense of knowing what I was talking about.

MG:  Is there a part of this experience that has helped you with your grief?

ZW:  I don't know if it's helped.  Perhaps it's helped.  No, I don't think it has because, each night before the show, I play a mental videotape of the deaths of my parents.  The days leading up to it.  The moments before it.  The days afterward.  While that process has helped me prepare for my performance, I really don't need to go through that anymore.  I don't want to go through that anymore.  I don't want to go through that pain so much all the time.  At a certain point, you have to stop.  However, with a performance, you never use just one thing from your life; you use a lot of things.  Not all of what I am feeling in Electra relates back to the death of my father.  There are many other things going on.  So, Brian's remark is absolutely right: you try not to take it home with you, you can't take it home with you, yet in some way it does stay in your psyche.

MG:  How do you see this performance within the context of your career?  Would you consider this your favourite role?

ZW:  No, it's not my favourite.  My favourite role was a non-speaking role: Kattrin in Mother Courage, which I did with Judi Dench at the Royal Shakespeare [Company].  The reason why it was my favourite was I didn't have any lines to learn and I died at the end and the audience was very sad!  [Laughs]  I say that flippantly, I don't really have favourite roles.  When I am doing them, they are my favourite because you put your heart and soul into them.  But, no, there are not favourite roles.

MG:  This has been fascinating.  Is there anything else you'd like to say about this adaptation of Electra?

ZW:  The word passion comes to mind.  Frank has a great mind.  He was there for some rehearsals, and his presence was exciting.  On one hand you felt as though Sophocles was in the room and, on the other hand, it was as though we were working on a brand new play.

With thanks to Mark Glubke for allowing me to reproduce this interview on the website.


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