A human tale that passes through time like a knife

What is it .... about rhymed drama that makes the British giggle? It must be all those years of sitting through pantomimes and parlour monologues that makes the chiming of words at the end of lines ring merry bells, not ones that signal the most solemn intention.

Last night's play on Radio 4 was Oedipus the King in Peter Hall's National Theatre production last year, with Alan Howard in the lead and music by Judith Weir. The version was by Ranjit Bolt, who takes, I think, only such liberties with any text he tackles as will make it make new sense. His language is direct, contemporary, powerful. He sent Oedipus on the journey from kingly power to broken blindness, from hubris to nemesis, in words that showed it clearly.

All the time, however, he makes the text jump over rhyme hurdles, clear, hear, despair, there, hair. I hate them, although I think I know what they are for: to formalise; to lift the plain words into transcendental significance; to burn in a contrast between humanity and destiny.

Oedipus the King

Photograph © Allan Titmuss

This is, after all, the great play, the key text in all drama. It passes through time like a knife and strikes to the heart of every generation. It tells us how narrow the line can be between normality and utter abnormality, of how small a moment it takes to cross it, of how an act of pity may become the instrument of horrible destiny. Sophocles incises our every hidden horror, fear and guilt because he makes his people only too human.

Oedipus, the baby prince shackled and given to a shepherd to destroy because of fear of a prophecy that he would kill his father, is saved through the shepherd's mercy. He grows up thinking that he is the son of another, far-off king. One day in manhood, travelling on a lonely road, he meets a small party of men. Their herald speaks rudely to him, an older man in the chariot hits him with a whip. Oedipus fights back, kills them all, comes to the city, saves its people from a plague, marries its queen.

Years pass, plagues return. Determined to establish why, Oedipus gradually uncovers the truth. He, father-killer, mother-marrier, is the root of the corruption. His wife kills herself. He blinds himself and goes into exile, to carry the burden of his sin and to expiate it.

We see none of this. It is all reported, recollected, pieced together in our presence. We are held inside the past-present tension, unless that tension is destroyed in the production. A performance that gives the words their exact weight, neither more nor less than is appropriate to the message, probably only exists in the mind. But this is a play that must be performed, if only to measure the distance between interpretations.

Hall used masks for the stage. The effect then, as I recall it, was to distance the players and to change their voices. Did they wear the masks for radio? Or were the heightened tones and thrumming consonants - brinnng, mmmonstrous - just there from habit? Between these clanging emphases and waiting for the next rhyme to drop ("They have brought him here / Tiresias, that great, godlike seer"), not to mention the occasional sheer drop into total bathos ("O, it is truly terrible to be wise...."), you might think I had a rotten time listening to this.

I didn't. I was gripped, wrung, shattered. It may not have been perfection but it was, unarguably, magnificent in aim and achievement. It will be repeated (and followed by Oedipus at Colonus) on Sunday night on Radio 3.

Gillian Reynolds

The Daily Telegraph, 25.3.97.


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