The Oedipus Plays

When it comes to being more sinned against than sinning, Oedipus has it in spades. Lear may have shaken a fist at heaven, but his ills were strictly man-made. Oedipus' fate, on the other hand - that he would kill his father and marry his mother - is decreed by the gods and is thus irreversible.

What makes Peter Hall's version of Sophocles' twinned tragedies Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus work so well is that, despite our familiarity with the hero's misfortunes, the director avoids any feeling of lugubrious litany and presents Oedipus as a scrupulous investigator, as keen to unravel his destiny as he was to solve the Sphinx's riddle which made him Thebes' king. His tragedy is that his guiltlessness is not even raised in his defense.

The Oedipus Plays

Photograph © Allan Titmuss

And so any qualms Sir Peter may have had about what those critics not flown out to Epidaurus for the special preview of The Oedipus Plays might want to whisper into some suggestible oracle's ear prove unfounded. For London audiences, this highly stylised yet rigorously lucid production (colloquial translation by Ranjit Bolt) may lose a Grecian night sky. But it gains the Olivier's acoustics, intimacy and comfort. (Anyway, the Olivier auditorium was modelled on Epidaurus.)

Alan Howard's Oedipus is a towering centre around which all else swirls like sweetpapers. Few other actors could convey the swingeing reverses Oedipus suffers, from regal omnipotence to eyeless exile, all from behind a mask. From razor-minded sleuth after truth in Oedipus the King to blind old man whose life of stoicism, pain and submission to divine will blossoms into ironic humour in Oedipus at Colonus, it's a sign of Howard's greatness that he can convey so much without the actor's most basic weapon - the face.

From the outset he transfixes - with a voice that bends and stretches phrases, mining odd nuance and eliciting telling emphases - as the hero inexorably drawn to self-discovery. In the first play, Thebes is a blood-hued, bone-littered, plague-ravaged city encircled by flaming braziers. Oedipus repeatedly advances towards the sack-clothed chorus/citizens (who are also masked) on a jutting platform, meticulous in his questioning of their complaints and zealous in his resolve to help.

Weird and ominous revelations result, but seem less incredible in the eerie landscape conjured by some stunning stage images. When Greg Hicks' mud-caked seer Tiresias, for instance, is led in by a tiny child with a rope like some beast of burden, the moment is both surreal and ghoulish.

The much shorter Oedipus at Colonus seems more an elegaic coda to the first play, with old Oedipus allowed some small revenge for a lifetime's exile while doing the Greek equivalent to knocking on heaven's door. Once again Dionysis Fotopolous's stark designs - this time with a solitary silhouetted tree upstage representing the sacred grove beyond Athens and the muslin-swathed Chorus/Furies waving like marsh reeds - lend powerful expressionistic meaning to Hall's engrossing interpretation.

Graham Hassell

What's On in London, 25.9.96 - 2.10.96


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