It’s a few years since I went to see a theatre production that wasn’t a musical, but After Electra reminded me of the power of the theatre. For three hours, I was bought together with a cluster of strangers to watch a group of actors giving life to characters in a script: lifting the characters off the page and breathing life into them. The story was a river of emotion, flowing between dark humour, joy, sorrow, hope, fear and crushing reality.
After Electra tells the story of Virgie, a woman who gathers her nearest and dearest together on her 84th birthday to throw a farewell party, since she intends to kill herself that evening. The play cracks open the can of worms of death, suicide and ageing; broaching subjects that tend to be considered taboo in our society. The first half was a laugh a minute, but the tone of the second half was markedly different; Virgie is still alive against her wishes and now unable to live independently, there are still light moments, but the second half explores the purpose of life in ‘the autumn years’.
The script of the play was dynamic and punchy, with de Angelis’ masterful creation of believable characters and conversations. I found the ending of the play rather abrupt, although it was the sort of ending that leaves enough unanswered questions that I suspect that I will still be mulling over the plot in a weeks’ time.
The quality of the performance was superb – particularly for an amateur production. I was particularly blown away by the performance of Mary Mitchell, who played Virgie; she was absolutely spectacular. There was a particular scene in the second half of the play where, after suffering a stroke, Virgie’s daughter has to feed her. As somebody who used to work in a nursing home, I found this scene flawlessly believable and convincing – everything was carefully studied, from the angle of Virgie’s feet as she slumped in a chair, to the slightly lopsided head and clenched fist. Mitchell truly became a stroke victim and I felt overwhelmed with empathy for the character in the loss of dignity and independence. It was also compelling to see how other characters changed in their behaviour towards Virgie after the stroke; suddenly discussing her over the top of her head, rather than addressing her directly, something that, sadly, I saw only too often in the nursing home.
The Chesil Theatre is an event in itself. Winchester probably contains as many churches as pubs, so it’s hardly surprising that many have changed use, being converted to housing, a cinema and this theatre. The theatre is small and intimate with only a few rows of chairs and the fabric of the old church can still be appreciated in the arches and rafters- it is a breath-taking space. The rush of traffic on the busy road outside can be heard from inside the theatre, but I found that this in fact added to the setting, such background noise made me feel like the set had become real and I was genuinely in Virgie’s house, compared to the clinical acoustics of most theatres.
In all, this was a fantastic performance of a particularly good play. After Electra is playing until Saturday, but if you haven’t got the opportunity to go then do visit the Chesil Theatre if you can, or support your local community theatre.
After Electra is playing at the Chesil Theatre in Winchester until Saturday 27 May 2017. Tickets are still available here.