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Entering the Olivier auditorium of London’s National Theatre is like entering an ancient site of reverence and monumental worship. A vast burnished-bronze gateway supports two massive doors which dominate the space. These are the famous gates of Thebes, site of Oedipus’s skilful defeat of the monstrous Sphinx which terrorized the city with her fatal riddles. The sense of foreboding which this classical structure evokes is tangible. All else is silent. Light glisters off the warm metallic surfaces. The palatial doors sit squarely on a broad bronze convex stage, reminiscent of a resting aspis – the round shield carried into battle by the Greek hoplite soldier – which adorns ancient pottery and statuary. Bronze shield, bronze gateway and, askance to one side, a table and benches perched precariously over the steeply curving edge of the acting space.
The vast shield slowly, almost imperceptibly, revolves, tilting and turning as each new revelation tilts and turns the fortunes of the plays’ protagonists. The table and benches remain rooted to their place, a sleight-of-stage trickery ensuring that they, and they alone, are the constants in this slow-changing world. Backstage screens occasionally part to reveal not just the changing seasons, but the ominous change of nature’s own fortune, as trees once full of leaves are crammed full of ominous black crows, finally to be blasted into splinters like the sullen stumps on a First World War Flanders battlefield.
The permanence of the benches and table matches the permanence of those Thebans who suffer first at the claws of the lion-bodied Sphinx and now at the clutch of a virulent plague. The play’s Chorus, elders of the city who harmonize their anguish and despair with operatic intensity, huddle around the lowly wooden furniture as if gathering in a Theban public square. They debate, they cajole, but they never step over the social mark which separates them from the Theban royal family, now ruled by the stranger who has married their widowed queen Jocasta, and who is haunted by a lifetime of escaping from the inevitability of his fate.
The tale of Oedipus, written by Sophocles in the fifth century BC, was, from its very inception, recognized as a great tragic drama. The narrative of Oedipus’s murder of his own father, Laius, and incestuous marriage to his mother Jocasta, achieved even greater notoriety following the early twentieth century advances in Freudian psychoanalysis, whereby a whole tranche of psycho-sexual behaviour was designated ‘Oedipal’ in the play’s honour. Oedipus has now been reborn for its twenty-first-century audience in Frank McGuinness’s moving interpretation.
McGuinness captures the essence of Sophocles’ play and translates its poetic horror with an immediacy and modernity which spans the millennia. There is a fine heritage to this venture. Homer employed the myth and even Sophocles’ famous playwright rival, Aeschylus, wrote his own versions of the Oedipus legend. McGuinness has proved himself worthy of this heritage, providing an hour and forty minutes of spellbinding magic.
As already mentioned, the Chorus, a fifteen-strong phalanx of Theban citizens whose utterances swell with the power of a Welsh male-voice choir, underscores the narrative of the play. These dark-grey suited troubled men express the fears of the nation. They have the worried look of Wall Street traders, unsure how to alter the path of destiny and avoid ultimate social destruction. They turn to their leader, Oedipus, who, despite his bravura, is himself deeply worried and deeply, deeply flawed.
Oedipus’s uncontrollable violence, evidenced by the callous murder of a man who had struck him with a whip on the road to Thebes, bubbles beneath the surface of his tortured personality. This seething violence and self-doubt is magnificently portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. Whether demanding the truth from the citizens or confronting his wife/mother with the awful realization of their incestuous and bestial coupling, Fiennes soars with regal majesty and human frailty. His eventual self-mutilation is horrifically real, the touching moment of paternal affection with his daughter/sisters, bathed in a sea of his own blood, heart-rendingly moving in its intensity.
Clare Higgins is, likewise, superb as the unfortunate Jocasta. Despite the obvious and very appropriate difference in age between Fiennes and Higgins – mother-lover meeting son-husband – the animal sexuality of Higgins’s Jocasta sits comfortably with the warm maternalism of her love for Oedipus. Nurturing her distraught husband, Higgins evokes the image of a pagan Pietà, grief and pity and love too much for one woman to bear.
Jasper Britton’s Cleon, the brother of Jocasta, is suitably cool and regal. Rather than suffer the stress of kingly rule, Cleon is satisfied with his status and the benefits it brings. Toadying Thebans fawn and flatter Cleon for favours to come. What need he of aspiring to a throne so obviously tainted with death? Britton plays this cold-hearted prince with sinister aplomb.
The aged Shepherd who brings the ultimate proof of Oedipus’s true genealogy is wonderfully played by Alfred Burke, an actor whose senior years cannot diminish the powerful intensity of his performance. Similarly, Alan Howard, as the blind soothsayer Teiresias, evokes an insane normality which is both disturbing and mesmeric to watch.
Jonathan Kent has directed a wonderful production, ably assisted by his designer Paul Brown. There is a classical gravitas, a timeless weight to this play. Yet, even with its ancient heritage, the very immediacy of its message, so deftly expressed in McGuinness’s writing, ensures that this Oedipus touches its modern audience with an intensity that has to be experienced to be believed. With Sphinx-like callousness, fate will always have her way. Try as we may, we, like Oedipus, often feel that fate has some particularly nasty surprises in store. This fatalistic message is beautifully handled by the National Theatre and will surely be remembered as a highlight of the year’s theatrical season.
© Kevin Quarmby 2008
Originally published on R&V on 17-10-08
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