By Matthew Lyon
(504 words, 6-minute read)
Over the years, my reactions to Natalie Hennedige’s work for Cake Theatrical Productions have ranged from adulation (Nothing, 2007) to anger (Versus, 2015), with her recent productions tending towards the latter. How wonderful, then, to see such an abrupt reversal of this trend in a rough-hewn, sharp-edged version of Sophocles’ play about pain.
Hennedige has tried rewriting Greek tragedy before, in 2006’s Cheek – but that bizarre triptych strayed so far from its source material that its protagonist, Antigone, was unrecognizable. Here, though, Hennedige and co-writer Michelle Tan hew fairly closely to Sophocles’ plot, which provides clean lines that the production fills in with outlandish colours. And many of those colours are borrowed: masks from Julie Taymor, puppets from The Finger Players, physicality from The Wooster Group, and character quirks from Saturday morning cartoons. But in Hennedige’s hands these borrowings become misshapen, slapdash, crude. It’s as if a magpie stole everything that wasn’t shiny.
This aesthetic permeates the design. Philip Tan’s sound design smashes mechanical dirges into bubblegum pop. Andy Lim’s lights splash and glare and fizzle. The set, designed by visual art collective neontights, becomes a derelict playroom where broken, ancient children have long been locked away.
And Electra has been locked away the longest. Throughout her career, Edith Podesta has consistently proved that while other actors are tourists or renters in the worlds their characters inhabit, she has never lived anywhere else. The same is true here. As Electra, Podesta is young but stunted and bitter. She girlishly dreams of violent revenge. She crawls into herself and then lashes out when she hates what she finds there.
Lian Sutton in the double role of Electra’s nemesis/mother Clytemnestra and her saviour/brother Orestes, matches Podesta for presence, and finds a cold gravity in the text. Uniquely his performance suggests grace – or at least a fall from that – as if his yearning for a brighter past has made his present darker.
Sharda Harrison, wearing a comic mask atop her head as Electra’s servant/confidante, fuses the expressiveness of her face with the expressiveness of her mask while keeping both fully present to the eye. It is quite the best example of what Julie Taymor calls “double event” that I have seen.
But Andrew Marko, fitted with a similar mask as Orestes’ old servant Pylades, lacks the physical skills to accomplish this, and his face and mask both go dead. Nor does he have much impact as Aegisthus, Electra’s cruel stepfather. In a third role he enters more into the spirit of the production, embodying an aggressive vanity as Electra’s sister Chrysothemis. But Marko, who gave us 2016’s standout performance as Josh in Pangdemonium’s Falling, does not possess the hard-edged voice and movement that Hennedige’s plays require.
There are other flaws, but I’m not inclined to document them. Incongruities and indulgences are present in even the best of Hennedige’s work, due to her over-embracing artistic instincts. But this production achieves a ragged coherence nonetheless – a timeless, timeworn power that is fresh and stale and bitter to the core.
Electra by Cake Theatrical Productions ran 24 – 26 Nov 2016 at Drama Centre Black Box. For more information, visit their website here.