MinusOneSister review (Griffin Theatre, Sydney)

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How many more lessons about the great conflicts and trials of life can we possibly learn from Greek tragedy? They’ve been part of our collective cultural consciousness for many centuries, and every year these plays are deconstructed and reconstructed by writers and directors wanting to interrogate human nature pushed to the extreme.

Anna Barnes’ Patrick White Award-winning play MinusOneSister is a fresh take on Sophocles’ Electra, all about the teenage response to violence and trauma. It’s a tough and insightful look into the interaction of the public and private spheres — a central fascination of the Ancient Greek dramatists — and how the difficult delineation between the two is at the core of many of our great failings as a society.

Barnes’ play features the siblings Electra (Kate Cheel), Orestes (Liam Nunan), Chrysothemis (Contessa Treffone) and Iphigenia (Lucy Heffernan), the “minus one sister” of the title.

The action leaps back and forth, starting with the four siblings as young children. When their father (who remains unnamed in the script) sacrifices Iphigenia for the common good (although Barnes never entirely explains why), the family is thrown into chaos. Their mother soon kills their father, which draws a wedge between the three remaining children — Electra and Orestes are furious with their mother, but Chrysothemis believes she was justified in her actions. If you’re at all familiar the Electra myth, you’ll know how the story winds up.

Ancient Greek myths have been at the centre of many works about generations of trauma in recent years in Sydney — there’s a lot of focus on our inability to effectively tackle the cycles of domestic violence right now — but Barnes’ play is one of the most successful examinations of the way younger people are defined by their family history.

Barnes has the four young actors not only play themselves but take on slabs of narration, dragging the traditional Greek Chorus into a world of iPhones, Facebook and Vodka Cruisers. The language is direct and well-observed, and Barnes cuts right to the core of teenage insecurity; from a stunning monologue by Chrysothemis about the overwhelming anxiety she feels when her train ticket fails and she holds up a large group of commuters, to Electra’s relationships with the other young girls in her mental health unit — there’s one girl who has a “breakthrough” discovering that her mental health problems stem from her mother’s trauma (“how privileged is that?!”).

Luke Rogers has directed a fast-moving, textured and energetic production (which was held back a little by an unexpected set malfunction on opening night, requiring the show to stop for 10 minutes). The production elements are all first-class, from Georgia Hopkins’ sophisticated set and costumes to Sian James-Holland’s lighting design and Nate Edmondson’s sound design, which both punctuate the dramatic beats of the play.

And this cast of four sensitive and forceful young actors gives you faith in the future (the present, really) of Australian acting. Kate Cheel’s Electra has a fascinating single-mindedness which is offset by the slight hesitation and frustration in Liam Nunan’s Orestes. Lucy Heffernan treads confidently into very dark territory as Iphigenia while Contessa Treffone is brilliantly highly-strung and otherworldly, but a strong influence on all the others onstage as Chrysothemis.

MinusOneSister is at Griffin’s SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney until October 3. Photograph by Brett Boardman

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