Elektra at the Getty Villa: A New Translation or a Rewrite?

Electra Receiving the Ashes of her Brother, Orestes, by Jean-Baptiste Joseph Wicar

Elektra is the third Greek drama I’ve been to see at the Getty Villa, and it’s the first I’ve been compelled to blog about. That should tell you something right there. I went to see a preview show Saturday night thanks to a belated birthday present from a dear friend, and I was so impressed I wanted to tell you all that you should go, but here’s the sad news–well, sad for you, good for the Getty and the troop–the show, which runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through 2 October, is already sold out. So then I wasn’t going to write about it, because I didn’t want to irk folks like Frank, and I didn’t want to gloat-post (“Look what I did that you can’t do…”). But then I read that it’s not impossible that seats will become available and so I’m back to posting about it. Besides I’d really love to get a take on the performance from someone who knows more about translations and/or classical drama than I do (and I know precious little, so that’s a lot of someones).

So yeah, if you’ve heard that the Getty is putting up Sophocles’ Elektra what you’ve no doubt heard is that Olympia Dukakis plays the chorus, which is, somewhat oddly in this production, not really a chorus at all but more like Dukakis and a sidekick along with a cellist. And sure, that’s noteworthy. Who doesn’t like Olympia Dukakis? But the real star of this show is Timberlake Wertenbaker’s translation, which was commissioned specially for this performance. And here’s where my questions come in: at what point does a translation cease to be a translation and become, instead, an interpretation? It’s been about a thousand years since I read Elektra (really, I think I was in high school, which means it was not only a thousand years ago but also that I was extremely stoned, so I truly don’t remember any detail), but it did, to my muddled memory, seem like the translation followed the sense of the play throughout. The language was almost hyper-contemporary at times, however. By itself, that would have probably gotten under my skin eventually (I am generally averse to the dumbing-down of things), but throughout the performance, at the moments of most heightened drama, the actors launched into pure Greek. It was delightful. Wertenbaker completely won me over. And really, like Stephen Mitchell’s Tao, the translation, while contemporary sounding, was extraordinarily poetical in its own right. I was so impressed that, if Wertenbaker’s translation is published, I’ll probably purchase it and read it.

As one would expect from a performance at the Getty, the acting was spot-on throughout. The other unexpected (to me) aspect of the performance was the music (cello, light percussion, and another odd sort of found-object-looking instrument I can’t name for you). Theresa Wong, the cellist, and Bonfire Madigan Shive (hippy parents anyone?), the composer, deserved their own ovation post-performance. Things that worked less well for me were the costuming, which was just too modern for my tastes, in the men’s jacket’s in particular–really, a leather jacket and a linen sport coat?–and the chain link fence part of the set design. The latter is explained this way in the program:

In designing this production, we wrapped the Getty facade in security tape and chain-link fencing to evoke the protective barriers Clytemnestra herself might have erected to defend against acts of reprisal. We are, of course, sadly accustomed today to the sight of public buildings becoming bunkers against possible “terrorist” attacks, and we are certainly accustomed to repetitive cycles of violence. Perhaps this is the real fascination of revisiting Greek drama: it is an occasion to look at our own experience through the unblinking lens of great tragedy.

I’d say, no, in fact, that’s not what the fascination is for me, nor do I expect that’s what draws most people. I could have just as well done without the chain link and leather jackets and amateurish references to terrorism, honestly. If I’m going to seek out a parable of some kind for our war against terror, Elektra wouldn’t be it.

One Reply to “Elektra at the Getty Villa: A New Translation or a Rewrite?”

  1. I jumped on tickets the moment I heard about “Elektra” a couple months ago. My wife and I are taking my mom for her birthday on September 18. Can’t WAIT.

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