Contest over. There can be only one winner of Best Actress at the next Olivier awards. Her name is Kristin Scott Thomas.
Scott Thomas delivers a performance of breathtaking intensity in the title role of Sophocles' tragedy at the Old Vic. This is a theatre that reeks of history like no other in London, a stage peopled by the spirits of Olivier, Gielgud and many other great actors, not to mention the theatre's current director Kevin Spacey, still very much alive. One of my great theatre memories from the 1960s is of seeing Gielgud and Irene Worth at the Old Vic in Peter Brook's legendary production of Seneca's Oedipus. I think this production by Ian Rickson, with its mesmerising central performance, ranks with the very best of them. From now on, I shall think of the Old Vic as the theatre where I saw Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra.
Rickson, the former director of the Royal Court who was also responsible for Michael Sheen's Hamlet a couple of years ago at the Young Vic 200 yards away, shows once again that Greek tragedy, like Greek food, is best kept simple. I wish Carrie Cracknell, the young director of the recent over-busy and over-designed Medea at the National Theatre, had followed this recipe, rather than trying to devise the theatrical equivalent of haute cuisine.
Rickson uses a version of the play by Frank McGuinness which is clear and supple; the design by Mark Thompson takes us not to ancient Greece, but a more recent Greece that has yet to enter the modern era. A huge oak door with some irregular stone steps leads into the cursed royal house of Atreus. There is a rusty standpipe a place for a fire, and a tree stump. This is the Greece from which Lord Elgin carried off the marbles.
Electra, consumed by hatred for her mother Clytemnestra, who has murdered her father Agamemnon, is a hollow-cheeked, sunken-eyed mess, her hair thrown around in rat-tails and her movements gawky and unpredictable. Grief has made her zombie-like. Scott Thomas's interpretation takes huge risks, pushing every line to its utmost, and she is unafraid to break the tension with the occasional flash of comedy. In this she reminds me of the great Mark Rylance, who also knows how to tread the precarious line between tragedy and comedy. The result is spine-tingling, but it comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen this charismatic actress on stage before. Like Rylance in Jerusalem, which was also directed by Rickson, she makes the role so completely her own that I cannot imagine any other actress tackling it.
There is a very strong supporting cast. It's a real thrill to see Diana Quick (whom I first saw on stage more than 40 years ago) as Clytemnestra. Peter Wight, Jack Lowden, Tyrone Huggins and Liz White are backed up by a chorus of three, played by Julian Dearden, Thalissa Teixeira and Golda Rosheuvel. There is eerie music by PJ Harvey too.
It's worth noting that this is the third stunning production in a row at the Old Vic, following Spacey's solo turn as Clarence Darrow, and Yael Farber's brilliant version of The Crucible. What other London theatre can boast a series of shows of this quality? Spacey's decade at the Old Vic has included a few bad choices, but it ends on a note of triumph.