Fiennes seeks the truth in 'Oedipus'


A man obsessed with fate, Oedipus as a theatrical Everest seems fated to have been climbed at one point or other by Ralph Fiennes, who opened Wednesday in the Sophocles tragedy of the same name at the National Theatre's Olivier auditorium. Not many actors, British or otherwise, possess the Broadway Tony winner's vocal heft, intelligence, and willingness to run toward a theatrical challenge, even with movies continually present to exert their siren song. (Fiennes has two Oscar nominations to his name and is easily the best thing about the latest Keira Knightley essay in period pouting, "The Duchess.")

That the director Jonathan Kent's production of "Oedipus" marks Fiennes's second stage assignment in London this year merely redoubles one's appreciation of his commitment to the live arts. Here's a performer who returns to the theatrical well more than one has any right to wish for, bringing weighty material and good people along with him. An actor in extremis, which is the point to which the grievous Oedipus is inevitably and ultimately delivered, may draw the public, but I can't imagine an audience failing to be impressed by the totality of an experience that makes a benchmark play seem bruisingly alive, well before the blood begins to spill.

Alan Howard and Ralph Fiennes

In a sense, "Oedipus" - Frank McGuinness's new version of the text dispenses with the full title, "Oedipus Tyrannos," also known as "Oedipus Rex" - is a thriller whose resolution is made within what feels like minutes, leaving the title character another hour or more to catch up; dramatic irony could not have wished for a better casebook study. You could argue that Oedipus himself is a seeker after the truth, no matter how terrible. "I will see what I am," he remarks late on, the verb "see" itself cruelly deployed in light of the character's eventual mutilation of his own eyes. But doesn't Oedipus also greatly resist the very knowledge that he craves? "You are who you are seeking to find," he is told near the start by the blind seer Teiresias (Alan Howard, himself a onetime National Theatre Oedipus, here in dazzling form). "You are your own children."

And yet, it's in the nature of this defining text that Oedipus nonetheless must have arrayed before him from multiple sources and numerous perspectives the grotesque truth about Jocasta, his wife and mother, being one and the same, and the inadvertent murder of his own father, Laius. To that extent, a man eventually cursed with blindness seems in some seminal way to be deaf: if he would only hear the admonitions that engulf him, he might spare himself quite so grim an outcome. Not to mention abbreviate still further an already short evening (95 minutes, no intermission), even though Kent's production is judiciously paced throughout.

At the outset, those famous Fiennes eyes look narrowed, hunted, as if in keeping with a soul in perpetual persecution, not least by himself.

Walking toward the lip of the Olivier stage, a gentle mound of weathered copper designed by the ever-ingenious Paul Brown, Fiennes cuts a modern-dress figure of suited braggadocio. "I rule the roost here," remarks Oedipus, whose natty demeanor is at deliberate odds with a Thebes in need of cleansing and given over to plague. The confidence, though, yields to a child-adult who can shift in an instant from defensiveness to tears, from hubris to the eternal need for solace that finds Oedipus movingly enfolded within Teiresias's eerily informed arms.

The play toys with the thirst for information and the simultaneous desire to recoil from it. Clare Higgins's Jocasta, a black-clad middle-aged babe who navigates the stage in stiletto heels, can dismiss as "many a man's mad dream" a son's desire to marry his own mother, as if the thought were too preposterous for words. Soon after, confronted with the enormity of a situation that will send her to an early grave, she bows out by embracing the silence of one who has known too much. "I'll say nothing again" are Jocasta's parting words, her vow anticipating a similar tactic in "Othello" from the villainous Iago, who departs Shakespeare's tragedy announcing, "From this time forth I never will speak word."

The ensemble is luxuriantly cast, as has apparently become the London norm, if this production, "Waste," and "Ivanov" - three bravura classic revivals - are any gauge. Howard, his voice gently flecked with an Irish lilt, points the play's chasm of bleakness in the direction of Samuel Beckett, and it's no accident that Teiresias makes his entrance tethered to a young boy, as if Beckett's famously elusive Godot had at last arrived. For all the operatic arias of lamentation, Kent knows when to insist on something rather more matter-of-fact. Alfred Burke is remarkable as the aging Shepherd who knows Oedipus's awful back story, a wizened bearer of events who for his part leaves off language when the awareness of circumstances simply gets too great. And just when you think the temperature can hardly rise higher, Oedipus's initially silent scream resounding in amplified form around the theater, Jasper Britton's Creon - Jocasta's brother - comes on as if to embody a statesmanship at once calming and ever so slightly chilling. Outsize emotion, one feels, is not this guy's thing.

One could do without the four youngsters who emerge at the eleventh hour as sobbing witnesses to Oedipus, a father in none too optimistic mode: "Your dowry is death," he tells them, though let's hope these actual children aren't listening too intently. This lapse of judgment is more than made up for by a conclusion that gives over the stage to an absolutely astonishing male chorus who have been seen throughout, grouped in collective isolation, singing snatches of minor-key, contrapuntal music courtesy of the composer Jonathan Dove in a suggestively Benjamin Britten-esque mode. As they sidle from view, speaking the play's final word - "contented" - our eyes are drawn to a blackness that all but engulfs the stage, one man's self-reckoning achieved at the price of sight: vision accompanied in the end by darkness.

Matt Wolf

International Herald Tribune, October 16, 2008