It is 12 years since we saw Sophocles' masterpiece on the Olivier stage and the contrast between then and now is palpable. Peter Hall's production was masked, formal and in rhyming couplets.
Jonathan Kent opts for sharp modern suits and language of brutal simplicity. But, while I find Kent's approach impressive, I wish he followed Hall's lead in also giving us Oedipus at Colonus which has a healing quality that balances the earlier work's savage horror.
There are many ways of looking at Sophocles' hero. You can see him as a helpless victim of fate or an exemplary seeker after truth. But the bias of Frank McGuinness' version and Ralph Fiennes' performance is to view him as an arrogant, hubristic figure who achieves humility through suffering. And despite advance strictures, McGuinness' translation admirably brings out the play's tragic trajectory.
His Oedipus is a man who says of his Corinthian youth, "I was the man to beat in that city" and who even dismisses Jocasta's supplications with "your best is not my best". But there is an ironic circularity to this version in which Oedipus, having described Laius's murderer as "filth", finally applies the word to his own parricidal, incestuous self.
Fiennes is also the right actor to execute this interpretation. He radiates an instinctive hauteur which underscores Oedipus' purblind pride. But he also shows the hero to be a man destroyed less by destiny than by his own impetuous curiosity. And, at the last, it is hard not to feel pity for this fallen figure as he enjoins his children to "lead a good life, better than your father's". It is a fine performance spoiled only by Kent's decision to use amplification to register Oedipus' offstage cry of horror: a touch that would have this theatre's namesake spinning in his grave.
That aside, Kent's production is propulsive, clear and strongly cast. Alan Howard, Oedipus in Hall's revival, also magnificently reinforces the Beckettian resonance by playing the blind Teiresias as a mocking prophet with an Irish lilt. Jasper Britton deftly captures Creon's transition from condemned truth-teller to heartless power-seeker. And Clare Higgins as Jocasta, whose relationship with Oedipus is overtly sexual, has a great moment when she realises the terrible truth and her face darkens like a city suddenly deprived of illumination.
But this is a production that succeeds because it shows Oedipus not as the gods' puppet but as a man whose suffering is related to his character flaws; which is a classic definition of tragedy.
The Guardian, 16.10.08