Oedipus – November 2008

8/10

By Sophocles, translated and adapted by Frank McGuinness

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Olivier Theatre

Saturday 15th November 2008

What a journey we had to get here. The road past Haywards Heath station was closed off, so we had a long detour to reach it another way. Then there were roadworks outside Waterloo East that made us take another detour. At least, I thought, the Lyttelton performance will already have started, so the Ladies will be relatively empty. Not so; the Lyttelton performance was also starting at three o’clock, and the place was hoatching (Heaving, adjectival description of a busy location – Wikipedia). All this, and having to put our rucksacks into the cloakroom, meant we made it to our seats with only a few minutes to spare. Still, as I told Steve, if we think we’re having a bad day, what about Oedipus? How we chuckled.

The set was fantastic, though I was a little distracted by its brilliance. We’d seen the dome taking shape in the workshops during a backstage tour, and now we could see it completed. It filled the centre of the Olivier stage, and was tipped slightly forward. The surface was like weathered copper, slightly roughened, and with patches of copper colour mixed with the green. It reminded me of a globe map, with the copper as land and the green as sea. There was a large doorway towards the back, facing the audience, with two vast metal doors between chunky posts and lintel, and to our left, near the front of the stage, was a long table with two matching benches. Panels at the back of the stage opened about four times when people arrived, one on each side, and each time there were trees on display. The first time they were all silver, the second time vultures had been added, and the third time they were golden autumn colours. The fourth time they were blasted stumps. (I hope they’re mentioned in the playtext, as I can’t remember exactly when they happened.)

The set used the slow revolve to perform a complete circle during the course of the play, finishing shortly before Oedipus arrives, covered in blood, for his final speeches of suffering. The table and benches didn’t move at all, however, and this was what distracted me briefly, as I looked for the groove that had to accommodate whatever was supporting the table. I spotted it fairly quickly, and I also noticed some of the chorus, when they were sitting on the benches, having to adjust their feet from time to time as the floor passed underneath them. Still, it was only a minor distraction.

The chorus was very good, with plenty of singing, chanting and speaking, often interleaving their lines. I thought the translation/adaptation was excellent. It kept the feel of a Greek tragedy, with some nicely poetic rhythmic lines, but also introduced some apposite modernisms, such as Creon saying he’d hang every terrorist. There were fine performances from Ralph Fiennes as the man who curses himself, and Clare Higgins as the mother who finds she’s married her son. Both were over-confident and scornful of the gods and prophecy, only to find the truth too much to bear. The other characters  were also very good, especially Jasper Britton as Creon, who, despite his apparently sincere declaration that he wasn’t seeking the top job, looked remarkably comfortable in the role once he’d got it. Also Alan Howard was powerful as Tiresias, the blind seer who gives Oedipus his first cryptic warnings of the doom to come. The question was asked several times, if Tiresias was so smart, how come he didn’t spill the beans a lot earlier and prevent all this suffering? Thebes is in a pretty bad way, crops not growing, women not having proper babies (buckets of blood were mentioned), and food apparently rotting in folk’s mouths (I assume this was poetic rather than literal). There’s no satisfactory answer to this question, except that Tiresias serves Apollo, so we’ll just have to assume that Laos, the previous king and Oedipus’s daddy, upset Apollo big time, and that’s why the entire family, and the country, suffers so much.

For Oedipus’s final appearance, the doors dropped down, and the panels at the back slid open to reveal emptiness. Oedipus gets a brief chance to be with his children, hugging his two little girls, before being sent inside on Creon’s orders, away from the public view. Creon tries to stop the girls from helping him, but I noticed that the elder – Antigone, I assume – escapes his clutches to lead her father off (she’ll defy Creon again, but that’s another play). The stage is left to the chorus and one or two of the other characters. As the chorus spreads out across the stage, the lights dim, and finally go out.

I love the way Greek drama is so direct. The characters speak lines that would rarely, if ever, come out of ordinary people’s mouths, yet, like Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue, they can be so much more moving. Also, we get to hear all sorts of arguments and points of view debated and discussed. We do also have to put up with unpleasant violence and lots of deaths, but on the whole I think it’s a fair price to pay, especially as performances tend to come in under two hours. This production was well worth the effort to get here.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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