23 September 2009

Mourning Becomes Electra

Mourning Becomes Electra
MUST (Monash University Student Theatre)
22 September 2009, opening night
Monash University Student Theatre, Clayton

I generally try to avoid instant coffee, worthy Aussie films and student theatre. Well, I must say that last night MUST (Monash University Student Theatre) proved me wrong on one count – and it wasn’t the ‘coffee’ they offered at interval.

It’s rare to see a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. Influenced by Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg, O’Neill brought Realism and a United States vernacular to the American stage. Deeply embedded in a post-Civil War American culture, five hours long and based on a Classical Greek Tragedy (Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy), it’s one of those great plays we tend to read rather than see.

But, plays are written to be performed, so an opportunity to see this Electra should be grasped if you enjoy Realism (the early-20th century kind), the Electra story or love seeing the works that have shaped western contemporary theatre. And O’Neill did re-tell one of the great stories. The tale of Electra and her dysfunctional family is just as powerful 2500 years later, is responsible for the naming of Freudian complexes and should be compulsory reading for anyone who has ever wanted their mum out of the way.

Director (MUST Artistic Director) Yvonne Virsik doesn’t dwell on what is American about the work, but pares it back to what is universal. Be it the background of the Civil or the Trojan War, this is a story about guilt, disgust and the cost of love. She also cut over an hour from the script, without losing any of its impact.

The simple design also does away with the Greek columns and family portraits asked for in the script and replaces them with an imposing door, a powerfully macabre set of death masks, and touches of ornate furniture. MUST prove how even the most limited of resources can create design that supports, tells and strengthens the story.

With a cast at the beginning of their careers, it would be unfair to expect Blanchett-like subtleties and Nevin-esque technique. Virsik lets her cast work to their strengths, but confines them within a definite structure, tone and style. This balances the uneven experience of the young cast and lets them concentrate on telling us the story. By letting the story and the script lead, issues with technique or skill become irrelevant. Each member of this disciplined cast creates the emotion required for each scene, which lets the story unfold and connect with the audience.

The Melbourne Fringe opens this week with an abundance of theatre options, but don’t let this one pass unnoticed.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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