Ritualistic style unlocks emotion

It may not be Epidaurus. There may not be the magic of the night sky or the rustle of the distant wind. But the Olivier Theatre is a good deal more comfortable and it makes the perfect indoor space for Peter Hall's superb production of The Oedipus Plays which, for all its recognition of human misfortune, has the healing touch.

I have always been somewhat sceptical about Hall's ritualistic approach to Greek drama: the masks, the formal grouping, the scrupulous anti-naturalism. But it works marvellously for Sophocles's twin masterpieces in that it yields memorable images, unlocks the plays' emotion and offers a striking counterpoint to Ranjit Bolt's direct, simple, even colloquial translation.

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Photograph © Allan Titmuss

In Oedipus the King the stage-pictures are overpowering. Alan Howard's doomed Oedipus occupies a long platform that juts out over the stage and, at the last, he appears in a hollow-eyed mask which makes him look like one of Bacon's cardinals. The blind, mud-caked Tiresias is led on stage by a boy with a rope in an image of Beckettian dependence. And when the Chorus recognise the horror, a single masked face turns towards the audience in a state of inexpressible grief.

But Hall also brings out the philosophical contradiction at the heart of these plays. "Our lives are ruled by chance," claims Jocasta; and, in one sense, Oedipus is the victim of fate. But Sophocles also shows that Oedipus has a restless curiosity and heroic dedication to truth. In Howard's performance you sense a passionate zeal to know himself.

The paradox of existence comes out even more strongly in Oedipus at Colonus where in Dionysis Fotopolous's setting, the sacred grove is implied by a single Godotesque tree. "Never to have been born is best by far," cry the Chorus in Sophocles's most quoted line. But the action is also a tribute to human endurance, to the possibility of loyalty and affection and to the fact that, while we suffer in the present, "there was suffering yesterday". Hall's production perfectly preserves that balance between pain and stoicism.

In short, the plays come alive for a modern audience. Howard, having articulated a rising arc of emotion in the first play, in the second brings out the ironic humour underlying Oedipus's suffering. And, under the masks, there are striking contributions from Suzanne Bertish as the agonised Jocasta, Greg Hicks as the blindly prophetic Tiresias and Pip Donaghy as the shiftingly ambiguous Creon. Judith Weir's music also has the supreme merit of heightening the emotion without overpowering it. But the triumph of Hall's production is that, while using the methods of antiquity, it makes these plays accessible and shows how human suffering is constantly countered by fortitude.

Michael Billington

The Guardian, 19.9.96

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