A parable for precarious times . . . like ours

Enter Ralph Fiennes in a slick city suit, looking like a bank supremo or industrial tycoon. His Oedipus is so serenely sure of himself that, for a mad moment, you think that with him as chairman, the troubles of Thebes plc can never get too devastating. But Jonathan Kent’s production proceeds to take its ironic, inevitable course, and with an intensity that bangs home the conclusion Sophocles wanted and, in our own way, we’re relearning: that life is unnervingly precarious, desperately insecure.

Actually, Fiennes himself is soon showing telltale signs of inner insecurity. He’s cool, blunt, authoritative as he starts to solve the civic and political problem that is, of course, himself. But there’s also a slight edginess that escalates into blustering paranoia when Alan Howard’s Teiresias, a cynic in a rumpled beachcomber’s suit, drops dark, taunting hints from behind his dark glasses. And Fiennes’s Oedipus sometimes reacts to Clare Higgins’s tough, sturdy Jocasta not just as a husband to his wife but as a child to the mother she also is: now kissing her on the lips, now resting his head in her lap.

At times last night Fiennes became a bit stilted, something one can’t blame on Frank McGuinness’s translation, which is unaffectedly colloquial — but he rose to the climaxes demanded of him. Confidence became fear became hope became despair.

Reassurance turned out to be accusation in disguise. Oedipus was revealed as the poison he had vowed to eradicate. And Fiennes emitted a thin, dry, almost endless wail, his mouth gaping like the horse in Picasso’s Guernica.

In an odd way his shirt paralleled the process. In his first businesslike phase he removed his jacket, and there it was, starched and white. Then it flopped down his waist in disarray.

And finally it was splattered with more blood than one man’s eyes could surely contain as the self-blinded king blundered, shuffled, crept, crawled, first to a chorus that winced from him, then towards the children who would, we knew, also succumb to the Curse of the House of Oedipus.

Maybe the revival is more awesome than moving, but maybe that’s what the tale of the self-destruction of a well-meaning but flawed tyrant should be. It’s also visually impressive, despite boasting no decor but one mighty bronze door, some fleetingly glimpsed trees, and, weirdly, a long trestle table round which gather 14 men who wear dark suits but no ties and themselves vaguely resemble bankers on their uppers.

But this chorus doesn’t just chatter or moan. Its dismay, fear, terror rises into chant and, at the end, into a mini-opera of horror and suffering. It happened to Thebes. Could something analogous happen to us?

Benedict Nightingale

The Times, 16.10.08.