Written and Directed by Kit Brookman
Belvoir Street Downstairs
26 September – 3 November

The first thing you notice on walking into the Downstairs Theatre is the heavy scent of dry grass. The entire stage is laid with turf; as you pass over it on the way to your seat it’s like negotiating a stranger’s backyard. The grass has been neglected so it resembles a suburban lawn, scorched and brown with patches of green sprouting flowers. A wooden bench and a couple of pots are ranged along the rear wall. A current of excitement passes through the audience in the presence of this living scenery; people turn to one another, asking, “I wonder how they keep it alive?” It’s an effective trick, like running water on stage, but it also establishes at a stroke the world of the play – The Oresteia meets The Eye of the Storm in the Inner West. The grass lends that world and the action that follows a special thickness – a vividness – with its living presence, as it fills the small Downstairs space with its perfume.

There have been so many iterations of the story of Clytemnestra and Electra and Orestes, with such different emphases (depending on who you read, Clytemnestra can be an avenging mother or a murderous adulteress; Electra a girl pining after her brother Orestes or an ancestor to Lady Macbeth, spurring him on to murder) that it’s easy to accept Kit Brookman’s contemporary rendering. The way he adapts the characters is unfailingly intelligent. Pylades (Tom Conroy) is no longer Orestes’ cousin but his lover: the play opens with their courtship in the courtyard of a gay pub. He still represents a refuge from the inferno of Orestes’ family life, however: Pylades’ easy intimacy with his own family holds out the possibility of blood ties that do not fester. (Conroy gives an appealing performance, diffident yet disarmingly honest.) Orestes and Electra’s sister Iphigenia was not sacrificed to allow their father’s fleet to sail to Troy, but killed herself in shame at the atrocities Agamemnon committed in the course of his military career.

The heart of Brookman’s play lies in a series of scenes at the home Electra (Susan Prior) shares with her husband (Paul Gleeson). Orestes (Luke Mullins) has returned for the funeral of their father after a long absence overseas: the interactions between sister and brother beautifully capture the barbed intimacy of family – the shared reminiscences, the recriminations, the contests over memory. Brookman sees Electra through the prism of mental illness: her rage is so impacted that she’s forever teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Prior gives a ferocious performance, while handling Electra’s abrupt shifts in mood with terrific finesse: one moment she is teasing – almost flirtatious – with her brother; the next she’s excoriating him for his absence. As Orestes, Mullins communicates the sense of a carefully constructed self – a self that must be guarded at all costs. It is not as showy a performance as Prior’s, but Mullins’ quiet intensity makes clear the effort involved in maintaining his sane persona. Their encounters – Electra goading her brother, Orestes wanting to help her but refusing to engage on her terms – are electric.

What I liked best, though, about Small and Tired is the freedom of action it allows its characters. They are not locked into a preordained cycle of vengeance but can choose how to respond to their painful histories. As the play ends, it feels like Orestes and Electra have been sprung from the prison of Greek tragedy – that even this family’s bloody history holds out the possibilities of healing and renewal.