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Sophocles was one of those old guys who was knocking about at the first ever Fringe, and his tragedy “Electra” was written at the end of the fourth century BC. A theatre group from the stunningly named Slippery Rock University (I told you it was stunning) in Pennsylvania have adapted the play with a rich Americana flavour. Setting classical theatre in a randomly selected historical period can risk replicating the unnecessary novelty of dressing a dog in a costume. Slippery Rock, however, are serious about this and their American Gothic at times seems like an end in itself, rather than just a means of revitalising classical tragedy.

In the hands of the writer David Skeele, this Sophocles is not a greenhorn on the frontier. With the play’s references to tuberculosis and Methodist preachers, it feels like we are in the nineteenth century, but it might be earlier. Aegisthus (Ethan Rochow) resembles a malignant Davy Crockett, whilst Iphigenia is left to die in the wilderness like the colonial patriarch in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Roger Malvin’s Burial” (1832). Yet with her rambling dreams, the dirt-poor Cora (Rachel Lambert) could be a figure straight out of William Faulkner’s modernist Southern Gothic. The title of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) was, by the bye, taken from some reported words of Agamemnon, this play’s dead hero.

The whole play constitutes a single act in a far greater tragedy. It all unfolds outside the rickety house where Agamemnon was murdered in his bath by his wife and her lover. It ends before a scene of terrible brutality can begin, with a powerful sense of sliding from horror into hell. “Electra” spins the opposite way to Sophocles’ Oedipus tragedy: Agamemnon’s daughter (Carina Iannarelli) will dedicate herself to her father and not her mother. Nonetheless, both Electra and her brother Orestes (Joe Karl) are weak, marginalised figures whose fortunes are controlled by others.

Yes, I know that there are not supposed to be jokes in a tragedy, but the lamentations of the play’s women are sometimes strained and overbearing. There is, in fact, a brief, sly joke about Electra sunning herself daily like a lizard on the same rock, which I think is a reference to the bizarrely-named university which is sponsoring this production. The resort to Gothic creepiness, with Cora’s dreams of severed heads, may not be exactly humorous but it still finds an important liveliness to compensate for the thickening gloom. Whilst “Electra” is accompanied by a small banjo-led band, there is no opportunity for them to burst into the barnstorming, knee-slapping country music which they look so capable of. They gradually slump in their chairs, languishing like a row of unwatered pot plants. Oddly the only character who seems to be having any fun is a sprightly-looking severed head, which is periodically brandished in various characters’ faces.

But this is meant to be a tragedy and when looking on it through the right mask, “Electra” is an earnest and well-designed adaptation which encompasses scenes of impressive drama.

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