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Plays

Greek plays: Sophocles’ Electra (BBC, 1974)

Eileen Adkins as Electra

Eileen Adkins as Electra

Today I’d like to share some of my impressions of a viewing of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s production of Sophocles’ Electra, televised on Wednesday 24 October 1974 as the BBC’s Play of the Month.

Two years earlier, in November 1972, the BBC had broadcast another Sophoclean play―King Oedipus―in a production by Alan Bridges. Both Electra and King Oedipus used the Penguin translations by E. F. Watling, but in several other respects the productions could not have been more different.

Last week I published a post on King Oedipus in which I described it as a big production, with a lavish set and a modern (if imprecise) southern Mediterranean or Middle Eastern setting with televisions, loudspeakers and colonial undertones. King Oedipus was a rich feast for the eyes, with occasional bursts of modern choreography and, overall, excellent and thoughtful direction by Alan Bridges.

When Lindsay-Hogg was offered the chance to direct Electra in 1974, he says he was ‘intrigued […] because I thought that it was a yawn a minute, and I wanted to prove otherwise’ (‘From Stones to Sophocles’, Radio Times, 17 October 1974, p. 4―an excerpt of which is pictured here). His directing career had begun with Ready, Steady, Go!, the 1960s British pop music programme produced by Associated-Rediffusion / Rediffusion-London. He later worked with the Beatles and the Stones, but he also served as director for much television drama―both television series (including the first instalments of Granada Television’s Brideshead Revisited in 1981) and stand-alone plays for both the BBC and ITV.

BFI viewing
Despite the director’s good intentions, this viewer, watching Electra some decades after its first broadcast, unfortunately found it to be more of a ‘yawn a minute’ than she would have liked. Here are my reflections on the 85-minute production which I saw at the BFI last month, followed by some perhaps usefully contrasting press criticism and valuable information from the BBC’s Audience Research Report on the production.

It is clear from the start that this is a pared down production of the play. There is no Pylades: Orestes (played by Martin Shaw) enters with the Tutor (Derek Godfrey); both are in modern dress, wearing shirts and trousers. The Chorus is reduced to a grandmotherly Nurse figure (played by Susan Richards) who is dressed humbly, wearing a black headscarf. Electra, her sister Chrysothemis, and mother Clytemnestra are dressed in the rather predictable colours of mourning black, angelic white and husband-killer red. Their dresses are less overtly modern, and accents of antiquity are offered by Chrysothemis’ and Clytemnestra’s jewellery.

I have yet to do an analysis of the script-as-spoken against the play, but it is clear that the reduction in the role of the chorus was accompanied by a severe cut in the choral odes and this seemed to give an even greater prominence to the role of Electra. In Sophocles’ version Electra is a psychologically disturbed woman who is still mourning her father Agamemnon, murdered over a decade earlier by her mother Clytemnestra, and deeply depressed from her current unhappy circumstances living with Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. There is so much deep anguish on display in Electra that productions can sometimes be difficult to watch.

Eileen Atkins, however, plays Electra for most of the play as if she is just slightly upset. There is a distinct lack of energy in her performance and her well-to-do voice and demeanour make this seem a rather English, stiff-upper-lip Electra. It is saying something that it was noteworthy indeed when that stiff-upper-lip twitched slightly when she referred to her mother’s lover with the words ‘her paramour Aegisthus’. To be fair, Atkins’ portrayal of Electra does get more vigorous as the play progresses and effective close-ups do help to convey this heightened emotion to the viewer, but at no point does acting seem adequately to match story. She is not alone in this: Georgina Hale as Chrysothemis is also very restrained, but this doesn’t jar as much with her character’s story.

This naturalistic drama also suffers from a sparseness of production. There is no music, no other sounds―just the voice. Except, that is, for the distinctive, thin sound of plywood being hit when Electra beats her fist against the palace walls, on which the render doesn’t quite hide the joins between the sheets of plywood.

Big, impressive geometric shapes define the set. The walls are rendered to look like stone, and they slope outwards as they rise up, effectively echoing the lines of the seating area in ancient amphitheatres. But, where the audience would be sat in the amphitheatre―giving both players and audience a strong feeling of being seen―there is, instead, a blank stone vacancy, punctuated only here and there with small square and rectangular windows but, being placed high up and lacking faces peering out, these do not serve as an effective substitute. The outward-leaning angle of the walls does engender a great sense of concentration on the acting space, but it is one which the acting and production does not seem able to bear. (In the small BFI viewing cubicle, at least, it felt stifling!)

The roughly circular acting space features one or two walls and an altar-like structure which is situated, oddly, right in front of the open door- and passageway into the palace. This altar, or short wall, comes into its own following Orestes’ murder of Clytemnestra, when he places her lifeless body on it in a manner of display similar to that effected by the ancient Greek ekkyklema (the device which wheeled out for the audience the results of actions, such as murder, that took place inside/off-stage).

Contemporary critics
There is the distinct possibility that the production just hasn’t aged well. Several contemporary critics seemed to think highly of it. Victoria Radin featured it in her ‘Pick of the Week’s TV’ as a production which ‘cuts out the frills and concentrates on the text’ (‘Briefing: Pick of the Week’s TV’, The Observer, 20 October 1974 , p. 29). Clive James in The Observer considered that the acting ‘reached a high standard’ (‘Television: For the Rest of their Lives’, The Observer, 27 October 1974, p. 29). Writing in The Guardian, Nancy Banks-Smith thought Atkins ‘dreadfully excellent’ as Electra: ‘The wide, unblinking eye and, at times, the very mouth of a Greek tragic mask [interesting: see the image at the top of this post]. Crooning over and cradling her dead brother’s ashes. Touching and terrifying and more and more mad’ (‘This Week on Television’, The Guardian, 25 October 1974, p. 12). Banks-Smith also admired ‘the abstract pit’ of the set, and interestingly thought that ‘the many windows and no faces’, plus the Tutor’s black hat in the opening scene, gave the suggestion of Mafia working away in the background.

The audience’s reactions
What did the viewers make of it? The BBC Audience Research Report calculated that it was seen by 4.4% of the UK population (around 46 million at this time)―so, a staggering 2 million or so viewers (somewhat less if the BBC meant 4.4% of the UK adult population). Of those who responded to the BBC’s audience research questionnaire, 57% watched the whole play and ‘12% came in in the middle, 19% switched off before the end and 12% tried a bit’. About half of respondents found the production ‘gripping’; others thought it ‘boring and difficult to understand’. The acting, especially by Eileen Atkins, was generally considered to have been very good. Views expressed on the set and costume usefully give a sense of the wide range of reactions that one production could engender amongst viewers:

Stark sets and modern costumes left some viewers feeling slightly hard-done-by: there was little about this production to woo the eye. It was unfortunate, a handful observed, that the rugged walls sounded hollow when kicked. Others, however, welcomed an austere and unobtrusive background to the action, or felt that, on the whole, the costumes had served to accentuate the ‘timeless’ character of the play. Nevertheless, it was occasionally suggested that the appearance of one of the characters in ‘holiday suit and Panama hat’ presented an unecessarily [sic] distracting anachronism.

The Open University
It is very interesting to note that extracts from the production were chosen by The Open University for inclusion in a BBC programme broadcast on 4 April 1979. The programme, entitled ‘The Theatre’, was made to support the second-level A292 course ‘Greece 478-336 BC’. The extracts from the production were introduced by comments by the classicist Eric Handley (then Professor of Greek at University College London; now Fellow in Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge), the purpose of which was to highlight some of the differences between the ancient and modern production of Greek plays.

In this pedagogical context it makes sense that the 1974 Electra (rather than, say, the 1972 King Oedipus) was used: the bare set evokes in shape and colour the amphitheatres of ancient Greece and the absence of stage properties and strong design elements make the production visually pretty neutral, or ‘timeless’; the text can therefore be seen to be foregrounded, allowing for a clearer comparison between this modern British television production and the theatrical practice of ancient Greece, with its all-male casts, large singing and dancing choruses and use of masks.

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