In Nick Payne’s reception of Sophocles’ Electra the eponymous ancient tragic heroine is portrayed as a woman in a state of constant crisis. The young British playwright's version was performed by the Young Vic theatre company at the Gate Theatre in London in the spring of 2011. In Payne’s creative adaptation Electra is deeply traumatized by her father’s murder which she witnessed as a child. Her grief knows no end and she is near collapse from lack of sleep. One of the most disturbing moments in the production was the scene when Electra hears the false news of her brother’s death and suffers a breakdown. She frantically rips up the floor of the stage and starts digging her own grave. She descends into it in a desperate attempt to reestablish her connection to her dead father. For the modern playwright the ancient tragic heroine is a woman trapped in state of crisis that allows for no respite and no escape.
To use the terminology of classical reception studies established by Lorna Hardwick in her seminal 2003 book Reception Studies Payne’s reception is not a translation of the ancient Greek dramatic text, but rather an ‘adaptation’ defined as ‘a version of the source developed for a different purpose or insufficiently close to count as translation’ (Hardwick, 2003: 9). Another applicable term is ‘version’: ‘a refiguration of a source (usually literary or dramatic) which is too free and selective to rank as a translation’ (Hardwick, 2003: 10). Payne’s intention was not to produce a close English translation of the original Greek, but to: ‘find a spoken language that might sound both contemporary and otherworldly, intimate yet epic’ (Payne, Foreword). Payne’s approach coupled with the additional elements added by the director of the Gate Theatre production, Carrie Cracknell, privilege the modern aspects of the dialogue between past and present. This Electra is designed to appeal to a non-knowledgeable contemporary audience. In the words of Fiona Mountford, a reviewer for the Evening Standard, the production was 'a twenty-first-century modern-dress Greek tragedy' (Mountford, 2011).
Payne narrows the focus of Sophocles’ tragedy down to the interactions within the family. There is no chorus to bear witness to the action on the stage and to establish a sense of the wider community. Cracknell used instead a younger version of Electra and the six actors themselves as an internal chorus. This strategy is coupled by an intensification of the remaining elements of the drama. Payne’s protagonists see what should not be seen. In this creative adaptation Agamemnon dies in his daughter’s arms and Orestes sees his dead body. Even the audience is made complicit in this ‘seeing’ of the off-stage space of Greek Tragedy. The spectators of this production acted as witnesses to the commission of the matricide on stage. The theatre was plunged into darkness, but flashes of light, the physical sounds of struggle and Clytemnestra’s screams rebounded of the walls of the intimate setting of the Gate Theatre. Payne and Cracknell thus implicate the audience in the matricide that in their version becomes the climax of the play. We never see Aegisthus. Orestes mentions his intention to kill him upon his arrival, but it is Clytemnestra’s corpse that is the focus of the last scenes of Payne’s play.
The series of catastrophes that befall the House of Atreus thus become symbolic of the state of the world at large. This modern version of Sophocles’ tragedy is designed to appeal to contemporary audiences by showcasing extreme emotional states and by recasting the action of the ancient play as a modern psychological thriller. This is an Electra for our troubled times.