Panel Discussion

Electra: Practice and Performance: I

The first of the 'Electra - Practice and Performance' panels took place on Saturday afternoon. The panel was Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw, whose long and highly successful collaboration has been responsible for, amongst others, award-winning productions of Sophocles' Electra (RSC 1989; revival tour 1991/2) and Euripides' Medea (Abbey, Dublin, 2000; revival London, 2001). The panel was chaired by Adrian Poole of Trinity College, Cambridge, author of Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example and the forthcoming A Very Short Introduction to Tragedy.

Adrian Poole began the session by welcoming the panellists and audience, and inviting Deborah Warner to introduce clips from a filmed performance of her Electra.

Deborah Warner: We thought that we should begin this session by showing a bit of a tape of Electra that exists that I haven't seen for 10 years, so it's been a bit of a surprise to me seeing it again.

[Excerpts from 1992 filming of Electra at the Bobingy Theatre, Paris shown. Footage is mostly of the recognition scene.]

Adrian Poole: Now that you've seen yourselves, again, after all these years, what do you think?

Fiona Shaw: Somebody was speaking earlier about the lack of fulfilment, or the gaps, or silences in the experience of Electra [Jennifer Wallace: "Romantic Electra: The Case of Shelley's Beatrice"]. Seeing that there, it just reminded me that there are lots of questions about Electra that you can't answer, because they can't be asked. For instance, that question about her fecundity - or her lack of fecundity - is so not answered in the text; or about her education, or lack of education; or about her future, or lack of future. It's difficult to get a sense of it from just watching those clips, but part of the compression of acting it was that fact that all of those unsaid, unexperienced things lay in part in what she is preoccupied with, and in part in Deborah's insistence that I knock all those alternative thoughts out of my head. So you could never even think it, because it realised a very negative energy. That's what she is: a whirling dervish of...not negative energy: that's the wrong word. She is in fact a very gentle soul, gentle because she is only interested in something other than herself. There is something fundamentally generous about her that makes her open in the way that all the great tragic heroines are. She's not as self-absorbed as she appears.

Adrian Poole: Deborah, you've just seen only a few clips in a medium that is very different from the theatrical one in which you work. What would you say is lost, or even gained in the translation from theatre to video?

Deborah Warner: The usefulness of showing that now is just to give a flavour of where the journey took us. I'll start with saying what it was I was on the hunt for when I agreed to do this play. It was 1989, and we were both at the RSC, who were keen that Fiona and I work together. Several plays were suggested, and then the idea of doing Electra swiftly took shape. I panicked, as is usual for me, about six weeks before rehearsals began, saying - 'I can't possibly do this play!' But then after that, if I had an aim, it was to see whether one could approach these plays on an emotional level; whether in any way, one could reach that emotional plane. The journey to that is what we should talk about today, and why we were fairly shipwrecked after four weeks of rehearsal frustrations, and how we felt we weren't really able to crack it at all, and how in the end, we did.

I think this playing from the very essence of a single thought, that Fiona spoke of, is the key, but the difficulty is how to get there when so many things seem so entirely irrelevant, and you have to strip the thing to its bare core. Any unnecessary thought weakens her energy and resolve.

Fiona Shaw: This is all coming flooding back to me now. When we started, I had lots of nests with food hidden in them, and cigarettes - I was always rolling very meagre cigarettes, picking up bits from the floor, having really a fantastic time being miserable. It became very interesting because those things that originally seemed so interesting just weren't in the play, because there are no little stores of food, and there are no cafés and there are no cigarettes...there's bareness. That's very taxing, because when all of that is stripped away, your imagination is being unfed. Deborah allowed my 'things' for about three weeks, and then she just systematically began to take them away from me. It was terrible.

Adrian Poole: Tell us more about the near shipwreck...if there's anything theatre audiences love hearing more than disasters, it's near disasters.

Fiona Shaw: Well, we lost an Orestes. He resigned. That was good! That happened about two minutes before we opened. But that was something to do with the play, I think. I think he got quite ill on it.

Deborah Warner: I think the real 'almost shipwreck' was that we did four weeks of rehearsals, and got nowhere with it. That had something to do with my planned assault on the play. We kept finding it impossible to hit the emotional level, so after four weeks (we had a six-week rehearsal period), when we had nothing, in desperation I resorted to a very unfair piece of direction and got them to run it [the play]. I had spent all of my time trying to open the beginning of the play, or rather, the chorus and Electra. We'd spent about three weeks just trying to make something occur with this first scene. But nothing we threw in came out with any flesh attached to it. So, one miserable Saturday morning, we said, okay, we'll run it.

When I did Electra, I hadn't yet done any opera and there's a very big connection there. Opera is easier, because the music makes the singer think along straight lines. In Fidelio, Leonora has to think straight down that hopeful line that she'll be carried through. The difficulty with theatre is that there are other distractions that make it very hard to take one road and one road only. What happened in the act of having to do it in the run that morning was that Fiona, having nothing to lose, went for it. In opera, you cannot do an aria without singing it. You either sing it completely, or you don't do it that day. That is exactly the same territory with Greek tragedy. These plays are nearly impossible to rehearse, because they are about being in the total situation. That is the only way to rehearse these plays and makes rehearsals very uncompromising, and very uncomfortable. It's like the way that prize fighters can't really rehearse their fights. This may explain why Fiona and I only do one every ten years.

Adrian Poole: The first production was at the Barbican. I'd imagine rehearsing in, and indeed playing in, the Barbican might not have helped.

Deborah Warner: In its first incarnation, The Pit, which was never originally designed to be a theatre - just a basement. Really, it's just a storeroom painted black. Just a few months before we did it, the tragedy of the King's Cross fire happened, and I remember going down to the station shortly after they had reopened it, and a very extraordinary thing happened. The charring was so dense, with the black carbon on the walls, so the quick solution had been to paint very thick white paint over this thick black carbon, which was terrible as you knew there was something horrific under it. This became important for me in The Pit. There were the nasty black walls of The Pit, and we just painted over them. Essentially, we were using the space as it was. There were two sides, which were architecturally very useful. The production space was very different in its second incarnation, and we revised the set, as we were playing first at The Riverside, and then on tour.

Adrian Poole: Questions from the audience?

Question: I'm fascinated by what you say about searching for the emotional space. Do you think it was easier for you as actors to get there without using masks?

Deborah Warner: By saying that I wanted to approach it purely emotionally, that is really what I mean. There was to be no stylisation at all, and the translation of Kenneth McLeish's that I chose, was the most straightforward, with the least heightened text of those available. I wanted to see whether the story, the pure story and emotion of these characters, could be realised in a kind of truth that we could recognise, in the way that we might find it in Chekhov or someone else. It was a mad experiment, because I think I already knew the answer, and the answer was no.

Question: When you see the video, you can see close-ups of the emotion of the actors. Is that sort of expressiveness necessary, when the original actors would have relied on masks to convey emotion?

Deborah Warner: I don't believe that the original actors who performed these plays would have been any less expressive facially under their masks. I don't see how you can travel through the emotions of these plays without having to express them.

Adrian Poole: You made the connection with opera. Is that not a way to consider the performance form? There are similarities between the performance skills in Greek drama and opera, where the performer is so devoted to the production of particular performance skills: recitative, or the big speech, or dance. Perhaps we don't need to think so much about what went on behind the mask as the performance form itself.

Deborah Warner: I spent an awful lot of time not thinking very much at all about what went on in the ancient Greek theatre, as that's not where my work particularly takes me, but I was recently in Greece and I went to Epidauros and just watching tourists come and go in that space, and you are immediately struck by space and height - the height of a five year old say. You know by the space why and how these plays worked there.

Question: You say that you came at it from an emotional view point, and that that was quite unusual - in fact, 'mad'. Do you think there is a more obvious way to approach Greek tragedy than the emotional?

Deborah Warner: I had seen quite a lot of Greek tragedy with masks, and many stylised productions, but I hadn't seen it approached so nakedly before.

Question: How did that work with the chorus? Did it mean if an individual in the chorus had an emotional response, you left it? Were the chorus then individual characters?

Fiona Shaw: I get suspicious about this phrase 'approaching in an emotional way'. Electra is unusual because it is written entirely like some kind of emotional apotheosis. The play demands that it be emotional, because it is dealing with the kind of grief, the heightened emotion that is just before death. That's why everyone tells Electra that she must stop, because if she doesn't stop, she will die. It is pitched at just that level. That is why maybe masks, or the opera later, might allow the play to be at the moment of elevation from spoken word to music, or to dance, or some other form that would allow this unbearable moment of human experience to be experienced. But if one is playing raw, one cannot but be emotional. It is one raw wave of emotion on top of another.

To go back to what Deborah was saying about opera: we refused all academic texts on the play, because in a way, actors compose their own music. Until that music is heard by the director, all the director can do is hang on to and edit what is being offered. Our production was the production of that group of people of that play and the music they composed. So it does in some ways say something about the people in the play as well. If one were deliberately to approach the play emotionally, I think it would smack of false emotion. You approach it as yourself.

Question: There are two moments in the play where very intense emotion is generated by information that the audience knows to be false - the account of the chariot race and the appearance of the urn. Did those moments create any special problems for the director or the actors?

Fiona Shaw: Well, it's just absolutely a phenomenally good play, that dramatic irony is being presented in front of your eyes, and you, the audience, are participating in it. You should be yelling out 'He's not in there - he's in front of you eyes'. I laugh at the back flip I did on hearing it's Orestes. In a way for her, it's almost worse news that it is Orestes - that he's alive - because she's got used to the idea that he's dead. My brother was killed shortly before we did this production, and my mother used to wake at night, dreaming that he was alive, and of course it was worse to wake to realise he was dead. It's a circular thing that is very hard to talk about because it happens very quickly in the play as it does in life, that one is caught in a false hope, and the false hope is far worse than the reality. In this play, it's reversed, and that's worse. The joyous reality is clearly worse for her brain than the grief that she has been living with.

Adrian Poole: That was a very brilliant part of the interpretation of this moment in the play. Your back-flip was a physical manifestation of the reversal in her emotions.

Question: Fiona, I saw a workshop that you did with some students where you took them through all the different ways of playing one character. Given that versatility, is the difficulty you first had doing Electra - the four weeks of nothing - because of the unique demands of the part?

Fiona Shaw: Deborah has spoken on this well, but I'd just add: there is no character; there's just that group and that play. With each re-finding of the play, there is an entirely different world found. There is no Electra. Electra sits in the centre of all of our minds. Someone mentioned a monodrama, but it's beyond that, as we are all also Orestes, and Clytemnestra, and Chrysothemis. It's very much about the director yanking together the essence of the person playing it and the text itself. Deborah could do another production with another group and it would come out differently.

Question: This is a question about the relationship between the actor and the director. Why does the actor need the director to bring her together with the text? Weren't there centuries of theatre when there was no director? What happens when the actor and director disagree over interpretation?

Deborah Warner: I'm suspicious about this word interpretation, and I don't think I'd say I had one for Electra that I'd inflict either on an audience, or on a cast. That's not the way I work. My job is to help the cast, or the individual actor find the connection. The director needs to be there, probably to be someone to witness it; witness the rehearsal process every day so that towards the end of the process (and that's performances, not just rehearsals) you can remind your cast of all of the stuff that could be brought together that they've come up with. It's not about an interpretation. It's about witnessing possibilities and helping the cast bring them to fruition.

Adrian Poole: Fiona is on record as saying about Deborah, "She doesn't interfere with your playing. She notes what you say and fixes it. In Electra, I had made it more hysterical and she was a bit cross about it. Tragedy has to be connected to sanity. Tragedy has no interest if it verges into lunacy. There is nothing tragic about the lunatic in the end. The sane watcher doesn't have to identify with it. Playing Electra was on a tight rope between sanity and insanity."

Fiona Shaw: That's why you need a director. I wouldn't have been able to offer up that kind of experience that was so outside the pendulum of my own daily experience, happily, unless the director was somebody I trusted completely to keep it on the right side of believability, apart from anything else.

David Wiles (from the audience): I wonder if you can develop what you were saying about your use of performance space. You did Electra in an arena space - a very naked, exposing space, and Medea in a picture-frame theatre with a translucent set. After your experiences, what are your thoughts about the space where you perform Greek tragedy.

Deborah Warner: It's so much a part of the timing. Looking at Electra, which is 11 years old, the whole look - of which the space is a part - is so much of its time, and so much something I would not be doing now. That video captures a moment of the coming together of all our influences, which at the time was heavily Peter Brook's Mahabharata... a place we wouldn't necessarily be in right now. The picture-frame Medea was born out of the proscenium theatre, which has to be the most doubtful space to do Greek tragedy. I believe we made it work, but it was very big work.

I think the choice and use of space is ultimately very much to do with where theatre is at a given moment. I was working recently on a project that was in part an installation project, and it was connected to a very high building and texts to do with angels. You would wander around this very tall building by yourself and also feel like an angel looking down on the city. This project is now over since September 11th. It is impossible to contemplate doing it now. It has no place. It did have a place - to try to prompt people to think about their relationship to buildings in the vast urban space, but now it's done. Similarly, I don't think it'd be the moment to take Electra over to New York right now. But then it might be. We've been asked over to America with Medea. I don't know if they need Electras now.

Question: A quick point to follow on from what you just said about the aftermath to September 11th. I wonder whether the tragedians of the ancient worlds could be mediating with the trauma specialists who are no doubt teeming around New York at the moment?

Fiona Shaw: Yes, it seems to me that if Greek tragedy has any relevance at all, it is because of their shock at the potential of human behaviour. One feels an excitement about it, and one wishes that certain American presidents would read these plays in bed at night. They might realise then that when people get killed at crossroads, they might possibly end up being related to you. I think the tragedians were shocked at how awful we are, and they go on reminding us of how awful we are, while we go on forgetting how awful we are.

Hugh Denard (from the audience): I wanted to hear about the performances you gave at Derry. Lurking at the back of my mind is an anxiety about tragedy, and using tragedy, as a means of framing, or creating paradigms through which we can understand contemporary themes. It seems immensely productive on the one hand, but on the other, are there not tensions as well involved in its use?

Fiona Shaw: We performed Electra in Derry and it was without doubt the most astonishing performance of my career. It was a bit like this September 11th thing. By accident, something terrible had occurred there that week. [1] Various things combined which resulted in the audience not clapping. There are two points to make first: the people in Derry don't have Greek tragedy performed for them - not like London, or Cambridge or Oxford. In that respect, it was fantastic to play to this audience who in general didn't know the plot, or even how the play was going to end. That was the one aspect of performing in Derry, but Deborah, take up the other.

Deborah Warner: I don't think that it was simply that at the end of this performance, everyone was rendered silent because of just the week before in Northern Ireland that had been particularly bloody - or indeed by the play itself. It was by chance that John Lynch who was playing Orestes was from North of Ireland, and the actress playing Electra was from the South. That was really chance.

Now to answer your question: to my mind, it is so much not the job of the director to set out to turn the play of Electra into a piece about Northern Ireland. It could be done - cast John Lynch as Orestes and Fiona Shaw as Electra, and make a play about the IRA. These exercises have indeed been done: Electra associated with the Bader-Meinhoff gang, for instance. But my argument would be that if you set out to do that, you so reduce the size of these great plays that in fact you'll miss the bull's eye entirely. What happened for us was that because the thing was not being named, that audience in Derry was free imaginatively to map their entire lives against the play and that situation. That was very startling and terribly unexpected for us. We knew to a degree by then about the power of the performance, but that was unexpected. And at the end, they didn't clap: they wanted to talk about revenge instead, because they were very troubled about the notion of revenge.

Question: I found your performance very stimulating. I come from Greece, and have seen several performances of Electra in Greek. Generally, we see things in different ways, so when I saw your performance, my first reaction was that this is disturbing and a great interpretation. But it misses some of the magnificence and serenity that you have in the Greek Electras. She seemed actually paranoid. So my question is, did you try to follow the ancient mentality of the whole thing, or did you try to do something modern with it? If the second, you really succeeded, but you missed the magnificence of the ancient tradition that Greek performances seem to have.

Fiona Shaw: I really loathe the word 'magnificence'. I feel that English theatre has been crippled by 'magnificence'. Opera has been held back for years by trying to be 'magnificent'. Very little of our human experience is 'magnificent'. I would think the window dressing at Selfridges could be 'magnificent', but human experience at the moment is so stuckered about with 'magnificence'. American presidents are 'magnificent'. Royalty is 'magnificent'. And it disguises endlessly, endlessly the ability to see the human soul shivering in eternity, which is really something about what these plays are useful for. If I wanted a 'magnificent' evening, I think I'd hire a yacht in Greece and sit there drinking gin. I know what you mean about her poetic size, but that's not 'magnificent'.

Questioner: Drinking gin in Greece is not magnificent. Magnificence is not screaming with a high pitched voice. It is low and resonant.

Fiona Shaw: I do know what you mean, but I also know so many actors who can so easily tap into 'magnificence'. And they tend to as soon as they come off stage! Perhaps it has something to do with the state of the theatre. It was fascinating to see earlier those magnificent etchings of Electra holding the urn, but for me it's white snow in front of the eyes.

Adrian Poole: You've disparaged magnificence, but what about serenity.

Fiona Shaw: I couldn't find a serenity in her, but I wish I could have. I would have loved to. Maybe it's a Euripides thing. Medea has serenity.

Deborah Warner: Orestes is serene until things start happening.

Questioner: I think magnificence is different for the Greeks. We didn't have many magnificent times in our history, so I think for us, it's not fake.

Fiona Shaw: I do know what you mean. A certain grandeur of the moment. And perhaps some of it has to do with the translation. None of the translations have the poetry I imagine you'd feel in the Greek. If it'd been by W.B.Yeats, we'd be able to hang it on its own poetry, but we're talking of little flinty translations into English of this magnificent language that you have. We'll always be limping along behind you, so I suppose in that way, we inevitably have to make the event a different event from the original, or what you can have.

Thalia Valeta (from the audience): It looks as if everyone is trying to find the truth in this part, wherever they are. When we see that, we have to distance ourselves from what we already know and carry with us, and that can make looking at the history of performance of Electra in Greece very moving.

Fiona Shaw: I think that is probably true, but you are talking about the theatre of the past, and I believe in the theatre of the future, and that is very hard to get to. I agree with Deborah that our production looks terribly dated in just ten years - it's gone in the moment. That now it is an historical document, and we're not experiencing a play; we're looking at an historical document of a production. Our job should not be to look back. But at the moment, theatre has become trapped, because the events of September 11th have rendered so many things irrelevant and passé. The moment has been missed. The aim of theatre has to be to try to capture the moment to take us into the future.

Simon Goldhill (from the audience): I'd like to ask about the script, as it is rather strange, particularly in those first four scenes when nothing happens. Did you try to work on the script, or change it - get round it in some way. It's not like Shakespeare when you have a fixed script, or a modern play when you can work with the author. How much like gospel did you treat that translation.

Fiona Shaw:

Light of the morning,
Sky-canopy above,
As the shadows of night
Melt into day, hear me.[2]

It is nearly nonsense. Over to you, Deborah.

Deborah Warner: No, I didn't try to change it, because something had to remain constant. I had to have something. That was all we had. Within that, I think what I would say - even though I'm sure many of you here wouldn't have dreamt of using the version I used - is that I'm very grateful to it for getting us where we got. It is so simple. The only parallel I've had recently was working on the dialogue scenes in Fidelio where the lines are really plain. Unlike speaking Shakespeare, with this nothing is found through the speaking of the line. We are used to the meaning coming with and on the line in Shakespeare, but in this, you have nothing other than the act of words being spoken. So you have to do this incredibly complicated multiple back-flip to get to the starting place for these characters. We're used to finding the character's history out through the text - subtext. In Greek plays, you have to tell the story (very, very hard!) and only then can you start speaking this stuff. That's why it's important to just go for it. I know that now, but to begin with, we were absolutely going the wrong way around it.

Question: Did you ever try to find the character through psychoanalytic, Stanislavskian techniques, or was it all just as it came in the speaking of the words?

Fiona Shaw: I don't think psychoanalysis is in it. You trip on it. We did do lots of things. I remember us doing lots of do your version of what you think might be a Greek ritual - nothing more inauthentic than that. But it has nothing to do with intellect either. You've got to bypass the intellect and go into a place that is ugly, and that may have meaning, or may have no meaning. And the director has to witness it, to see whether in that muddy pool there is any value. It's quite a humiliating experience, and is quite unprogressive and without structure. You just have to keep prodding. It's very hard to explain. But I do think there is no point applying psychoanalysis, because in the end, you're only applying potted Freudian, or Jungian analysis, just depending on what you've read.

Adrian Poole: It relates to a rather striking thing you said earlier: that you just had to do it, and that in that respect, it was different from rehearsing other plays. You had to act it out the whole time.

Deborah Warner: You have to sing it out the whole time.

Fiona Shaw: I was interested hearing John Lynch on the tape saying the word "mother" - ("Our mother is dead"). I later directed him as Hamlet, and he was ranting on about his mother in that play too. His mother, as it happens, is an entirely lovely woman whom he adores. But there is a mother that he has in his mind that he absolutely loathes. So it's odd that he has this mother that he is just dying to kill, but it absolutely isn't Mrs. Lynch; and it's also not mine.

Graham McLaren (from the audience): From the problems that you had to start off with, through to the breakthrough you had in the first run - which makes sense - how did that inform your work on Medea?

Fiona Shaw: We weren't so frightened when we began. We knew we'd get lost, so when we did get lost, we weren't so frightened.

Deborah Warner: There was a big thing with the chorus. I think the Electra chorus was very tame - neither one thing nor another. When we came to Medea, we again broke up the chorus a lot so that there were individual voices speaking, but they were also allowed a personality. It thought it was worth risking in Medea that they might respond as distinct characters and it surprised me how it worked.

Adrian Poole: That was one of the most striking things about your Medea - the extraordinary individuality of the chorus and how they interacted with Medea.

Mary Jacobus (from the audience): It was my brief to talk about psychoanalysis this morning, and I found myself being pulled away both by the play and also by the events of September 11th. I was very interested in what you were saying about the stalling of the first month and whether in playing there was a way to address the repeated language of injury, of injurious speech. I do think psychoanalysis has much to do with what you were discussing. I was struck by how repetition gives the pain the only place to emerge; in this play, and also in the world that has just witnessed September 11th. There is a potential for the release of pain in repetition that might explain why it is worth doing this play.

Fiona Shaw: You mean the repetition of the play, or the repetition within the play?

Mary Jacobus: The repetition of the text, which is in itself also about the repetition of injury.

Fiona Shaw: We don't experience it as repetition. We experience it as new.

Mary Jacobus: But surely there is some point of impasse after which the performance is repetition.

Fiona Shaw: There is a moment of impasse, but then it takes off and never stops changing. Deborah fixes the shape all the time. The work on it never stops. After a moment is found, when it is repeated, it's actually not repeated but starts again, and after that, it goes on. Repetition doesn't come in to it.

Mary Jacobus: But the play is asking - 'what is the space for the repetition of injury?' It seems so hard otherwise to find a place where we can address the pain of the events of September.

Thalia Valeta: From the 1930s to the '90s, there is only evidence of just one performance of Electra using psychoanalysis. All the other concentrate on just telling the story.

Adrian Poole: You could say that psychoanalysis does that too.

Jennifer Wallace (from the audience): This is a question about the relationship between the Medea and the Electra. You made Medea very parodic, almost farcical at times. I wonder whether part of the parody was the memory of your performance of Electra, and whether the memory of the 'magnificence' with which your Electra was received in reviews was something you used fruitfully in your performance of Medea.

Fiona Shaw: What a very intelligent person [Medea is]! Very clever! I was so relieved that there were some jokes in Medea. I was so delighted that the ironies were domestic. I think that was largely what it was. The style of Electra too was so held in the way that one felt one had to do Greek tragedy at that time, and Medea is so entirely domestic. She is full of this great difference between murderous desires and completely light silliness. And of course children's toys are full of both an epic quality and absolute nonsense. So if that's your vocabulary, then of course you can make as many jokes as you like.

Deborah Warner: Fiona despaired rehearsing Electra because she thought if there wasn't a joke the evening would never stand up. And there wasn't a single joke in Electra and that's quite extraordinary. That's very rare. There no production of King Lear or Titus Andronicus that doesn't stand up unless there's a joke somewhere. It's a very alarming play in that way. I rather suspect that if we'd done the Euripides' Electra, there might have been a few jokes, though.

Question: You've talked about how there was no room in your Electra for any bits of business, that it was completely stripped bare. But if you look at the poster for the Cambridge production, you'll see there are lots of trinkets, photographs, things like that. Was there no room for anything like that, any idiosyncrasies in your production?

Fiona Shaw: Jane has talked to me about the poster, and I think some of the things are things she used when she played Electra, and I think that's great, and I think we had a bit of that, absolutely.

Deborah Warner: Well, we did in rehearsals, but then we did strip all that out. I think that's the demand of this writer, I really do. Sophocles forces you to strip away everything.

Jane Montgomery (from the audience): I've a question about perspective and repetition. I was the understudy in the 1991 revival, and Deborah and I used to watch the play every single night - I think there was only one night we both went a little mad and decided not to watch it. Now my question is - how did both of you manage to keep your sense of perspective over the course of the tour? I played her for six months, and I was aware that by, say, two-thirds of the way through the run, I was getting so deeply into playing Electra on stage, that I really couldn't tell you how the show was going each night. Now directing it, I find that watching each performance is actually dulling my perspective on the play. But yet I remember with you, Deborah, you were able to watch even up to the last show, making incredibly detailed notes, and still retain complete perspective on the play as a whole.

Deborah Warner: Well, it's my job. It's the only thing I'm fit to do, and I've no trouble with it. I don't think there's any danger of getting sucked into some strange dark world you don't get out of.

Question: Does it change much - each performance during the course of the run.

Deborah Warner: Sure, it changes within the performance and massively over the run. This is a really interesting point. Because most people only go to see a play in the theatre once, they don't experience this change - nor do most critics. It is a fact of theatre that the difference between performances 1, 10, 20, 90, 150 is ginormous, and if it isn't there's something really wrong. It is a true thing that occurs every night which is why repetition is not in it. That's what creates deadly theatre.

Mary Jacobus: Each repetition is different but it is still a repetition.

Deborah Warner: Perhaps, but I don't think of it like that.

Hugh Denard (from the audience): This follows on from the point that's already been raised about the distance travelled between Electra and Medea. I was interested by the comedic elements in Medea, and also in Peter Hall's Tantalus. Last week I asked a group of students to devise a scenario to rewrite the beginning of a tragedy and they all came in with the opening of a comedy, without any provocation. It seems impossible - or at least very difficult - to produce tragedy that does stand up. Thinking back: antiquity, status (institutional status, monarchical status…) - is this something that gives us licence to be serious or tragic in a way that otherwise wouldn't be possible?

Fiona Shaw: Tragedy is soap opera now. We've consumed so much about the crisis of daily life in our entertainment/media, that we have become bludgeoned - so I can understand your students. It's bathos now, and the suspension of irony is terribly difficult to get hold of. It's maybe something about these texts being situated in antiquity that allows us to go into them whole.

Deborah Warner: The importance of all of this is the concept of being there. This whole concept that people will be able to sue CNN or the BBC for post-traumatic stress after watching their broadcasts is very disturbing. The nature of the shock is because they weren't there to work it through. So we know what these plays were for. And that comes back to repetition: why the thing has to be totally and utterly occurring with us in that theatre on that night. September 11th might just have made theatre important again. In times of crisis, people look for places where they can gather. And in Electra for that one and a half hours, it has to be so true - there can be no distance. It has to occur new each night. That's what one strives for. It doesn't necessarily happen. These plays bear with them a tremendous responsibility, and in performing them, we carry a tremendous responsibility so that we can be there as and when it occurs. We mustn't be there voyeuristically.

Question: You talked about the four-week struggle to find the start, the interaction between Electra and the chorus, and then the turn around after the run-through. Had there not been those weeks of getting nowhere, would the run-through have worked?

Fiona Shaw: Well, there's another aspect to all this. At the time, I didn't know Deborah very well at all, so I didn't know what she wanted. And, you know, she's a Quaker and I'm a Catholic, so never the twain really should meet. She was very still and quiet. I suppose I thought something will have to happen at some time. But I didn't realise that she was waiting for that to happen. If I had, I might have done it earlier.

Question: It seems to me as a non-practitioner that British theatre is quite a harsh place for women, particularly for women directors, and I wonder if that has had any bearing on your career, or whether your extraordinary success has put you beyond that.

Deborah Warner: I think the British theatre is an unbelievably benign place for women directors. Since about 1989, everything has changed. There was a time before that when, no question, it was extremely difficult.

Questioner: Why did it happen then?

Deborah Warner: Because people like Fiona Shaw and Juliet Stevenson and other actors started pestering the RSC to get some women directors. I started at the RSC in 1989, and when I began I was the only woman. Every interview I had began with 'What's it like to be the only female director at the RSC?'. And then in the next couple of years, there were 14 plays being put on, and 7 of them were being directed by women. It's still an issue in Europe and America, but it's really not in Britain. I get on my high horse now, and refuse to be interviewed for books on 'Women Directors', because for me it really isn't an issue.

Ruth Hazel (from the audience): At the end of the play, when Orestes has led Aegisthus in to die, and the chorus has spoken, what did you do? Because that final image is what the audience is left to tell them how to feel about the play, the part.

Fiona Shaw: I think I walked round and round and picked up some stones.

Ruth Hazel: I read one review which said you went round tidying.

Fiona Shaw: Yes, that's right...tidying... I suppose what else can you do if your brain's gone at that point? I remember finding it very moving, the notion of - what can you do? That you burn out on doing. In that way, it's almost not a tragedy - just a sad thing that she's left for the rest of her life with zero meaning....until the next play of Orestes starts. She has no future. She's lost all purpose. It's very difficult to do.

Ruth Hazel: So it wasn't a 're-instating order' tidying? More of a Marat/Sade tidying? [3]

Fiona Shaw: It wasn't really meant to have any meaning. It's a good question. When we got to that moment, we didn't know what to do next. So you can either sit and do nothing, or you can do tidying! (Actually, you can only do washing, tidying or leaving. And there's no point in leaving and there's probably no point in washing.)

Adrian Poole: Such a tempting point of closure but we do have time for just one more question.

Question: A question for both of you: you've done Richard II, so when are you going to do Oedipus?

Fiona Shaw: I don't know what role you hope I'd essay as I'm very near my Jocasta. When John Lynch is ready to do Oedipus, perhaps I'll give my Jocasta.

Question: Do you have a favourite Greek play?

Deborah Warner: I'm not terribly tempted by any Greek plays, as I've only just finished one. The favourite is the one you're working on.

Fiona Shaw: Electra remains my favourite. I think it's just the most wonderful play. In the end, I'll remember it more kindly than Medea. There's something terribly lovely about who Electra is.

The session ended with Adrian Poole thanking Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw, and the audience for their contributions.