Électre / Oreste

A stage full of mud or: the nature of theatre

There is a peculiar fascination about dirt on a theatre stage. I see a queen in her splendid costume – a bright blue dress, her matching shoes, and her head adorned with jewellery – descending a ramp into the muddy field that is the stage. She stands opposite her daughter. Not the slightest resemblance indicates her family connection to this other woman, facing her in her short muddy rags. Her daughter’s stubby, masculine hair is clumpy with dirt. The queen takes off her shoes to step off the ramp and approach her daughter. I want to shout and tell her to watch out, but the dirt has already stained the hem of her dress. In a forced attempt to hug her daughter, even more stains appear on her costume – the awkwardness of this embrace indicating the inability to heal the wounds of the past, which drove the main character to live in this world of darkness, dirt and despair.

I think about this costume – all the work that went into making it. All the work that continuously goes into keeping it clean. I think about the actors performing this play again and again – undergoing the process of cleansing, only to get smeared with dirt again on a regular basis, several times a week, for many months. I find it hard to believe this. The queen’s dress was so clean! And her revolted reaction when first stepping into this world so pure that I cannot believe the human inside her dress has been here before. The process of becoming dirty – the visual equivalent to the characters loading themselves with guilt –seems so deeply, emotionally overwhelming that I am, in fact, unable to imagine how an actor can perform this routinely. The illusion is perfect. In other words: the performance goes beyond the limits of my imagination – and I cannot find a higher expression of my esteem for it.

This queen is Clytemnestra, and this encounter with her daughter Electra, rich in contrast and emotion, takes place in Électre / Oreste – a production of the Comédie Française’s 2019/20 season, combining the two famous Euripidian tragedies. Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus have killed Agamemnon, her husband and father to Electra and Orestes. It is due to this deed that Electra is denied her royal status and lives a life in misery. She believes her brother to be dead, but when a stranger arrives in her village revealing himself to be her brother Orestes, the gate to her revenge is open.

My thoughts go back to the queen’s costume as I see it smeared with blood when her lifeless body is presented to the audience. She is not the first character to die, and she will not be the last one to suffer from Electra and Orestes’ violence. Before killing Clytemnestra, the siblings’ revenge hits Aegisthus, her lover and accomplice in the killing of her husband. His corpse is dragged on stage, and Electra does not hesitate to let out her anger and frustration at this defenceless body.

I see a character mutilating a bloody corpse – and the only filter for this scene are my own eyes. I see it happening, right there, at the other end of this room. Could it be real? Maybe I could see it more clearly if I were sitting closer to the stage? For all I know, for all I am able to perceive with my senses, it could have been real.

Despite the natural and realistic feeling brought about by the stage full of dirt and the realistic depiction of violence, the main characters’ vendetta does not find a natural end. As they face a murder trial, Electra and Orestes plot the killing of Clytemnestra’s sister Helen and capture her daughter Hermione. It is only through the appearance of Apollo as a deus ex machina that these events change.

The angelic figure of Apollo, illuminated in golden light and wearing a half-transparent gown of white and gold, interrupts the action and proclaims peace, without touching the field of dirt and blood that is the stage. This final moment manages to highlight the two extremes of theatrical depiction offered in this performance: The dirt and its reminiscence of the ‘real world’ clashes with the artificial cleanliness of a stage. Opposed to this strikingly natural element is the artificiality of a deus ex machina character, setting an unnatural ending to the plot that seems to have taken on the task to be as ‘natural’ and ‘life-like’ as possible in order to reach its cathartic heights. 

Through this staging, director Ivo van Hove raises questions about the capabilities and strengths of theatrical depiction. I see this piece as especially succeeded because it brings the extremes of theatre into harmony, creating a play which, although recounting a story that is more than 2000 years old, manages to defend the medium of theatre in a digitalised world due to this mix of naturality and artificiality. What Électre / Oreste so spectacularly does is unveil that intangible quality that makes live performance a painfully missed part of cultural life in 2020.

This is the first in the series ‘Plays That Made Me’ from theatre editor Georgie Dettmer in which writers celebrate and explore the live theatre that has remained with them to this day.