The power and the glory of ancient Greece

One of the cardinal rules of theatre criticism states that the further a reviewer travels to see a show, the more likely he is to file a rave review. He does, after all. have to justify the trip.

Reports of Peter Hall's productuion of Sophocles's Oedipus Plays in the magical ancient theatre at Epidaurus in Greece earlier this month were largely ecstatic. Now the plays have returned to the National Theatre's Olivier auditorium (whose design is actually based on Epidaurus). How do they come across, now they are deprived of chirruping cicadas and a moon rising in the warm Greek night?

hidden behind the mask Alan Howard is faultless in his characterisation of Oedipus

Photograph © Allan Titmuss

Moving and impressive are the words that spring to mind, though it would be wrong to pretend that this is an easy evening. What's remarkable, however, is that these two plays, strange and alien in many ways, are still capable of speaking so directly, and so affectingly, to a modern audience 2,500 years after they were written.

Hall, an old hand at Greek drama, once again stages them in full face masks, and describes the importance of the mask with evangelical fervour. Hall's view is that the mask helps contain the terrible emotion of Greek tragedy, and render it acceptable. I'm not entirely convinced. Audiences can cope with the blinding of Gloucester and the relentless suffering of Lear without the distancing device of masks. Why should they not also be able to experience the agony of Oedipus without facial protection?

In my view, Greek tragedy can work superbly without masks, but here is no doubt that Hall's approach works too. The sudden moments when rigid formality gives way to recognisable human emotion - most powerfully demonstrated here as the blinded Oedipus's voice suddenly cracks when he thinks of his poor daughters who are also his sisters - can create an explosive theatrical charge.

The plot of Oedipus the King still shocks despite its familiarity. Not only does it unsparingly depict the malign, remorseless working of fate, it is also the world's first (and best) detective story, with the hero doggedly hunting a villain only to discover that it is he who has committed the crime. The oppressive sense of an individual trapped and destroyed by what Cocteau called an infernal machine is at once dramatically thrilling and spiritually terrifying. After this, the sense of release in the second play, Oedipus at Colonus, as the hero finally dies without pain, achieves a genuine sense of relief.

Alan Howard's amazing actor-laddie voice can seem mannered in modern work, but its range and beauty are superbly deployed here, at times putting one in mind of a rich resonant cello, at others of a rapt, plangent oboe. The skill with which he pilots his way through yard after yard of verse, apparently without pausing for breath is, well, breathtaking.

Others fare less well - is it necessary for Greg Hicks's Tiresias to perform a ludicrous belly dance as he slurps down the verse like a greedy wine connoisseur? - and Ranjit Bolt's translation, in rhyming couplets, is sometimes distractingly colloquial, lacking the rough-hewn rhythmic intensity of Tony Harrison's superb version of The Oresteia.

The design by Dionysis Fotopolous has a grand simplicity, and the large Chorus move and speak with splendid precision, a multi-limbed, multi-voiced creature that comes together and moves apart like some mysterious natural organism.

It would be futile to pretend there aren't longueurs in Oedipus's terrible journey, but the cumulative power of the two plays, the sense that we have been forced to contemplate the human condition in its rawest state, is unmistakable.

Charles Spencer

Daily Telegraph, 19.9.96


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