Some twelve years before the action of the play begins, Oedipus has been made King of Thebes in gratitude for his freeing the people from the pestilence brought on them by the presence of the riddling Sphinx. Since Laius, the former king, had shortly before been killed, Oedipus has been further honored by the hand of Queen Jocasta.
Now another deadly pestilence is raging and the people have come to ask Oedipus to rescue them as before. The King has anticipated their need, however. Creon, Jocasta's brother, returns at the very moment from Apollo's oracle with the announcement that all will be well if Laius' murderer be found and cast from the city.
In an effort to discover the murderer, Oedipus sends for the blind seer, Tiresias. Under protest the prophet names Oedipus himself as the criminal. Oedipus, outraged at the accusation, denounces it as a plot of Creon to gain the throne. Jocasta appears just in time to avoid a battle between the two men. Seers, she assures Oedipus, are not infallible. In proof, she cites the old prophecy that her son should kill his father and have children by his mother. She prevented its fulfillment, she confesses, by abandoning their infant son in the mountains. As for Laius, he had been killed by robbers years later at the junction of three roads on the route to Delphi. This information makes Oedipus uneasy. He recalls having killed a man answering Laius' description at this very spot when he was fleeing from his home in Corinth to avoid fulfillment of a similar prophecy. An aged messenger arrives from Corinth, at this point, to announce the death of King Polybus, supposed father of Oedipus, and the election of Oedipus as king in his stead. On account of the old prophecy Oedipus refuses to return to Corinth until his mother, too, is dead. To calm his fears the messenger assures him that he is not the blood son of Polybus and Merope, but a foundling from the house of Laius deserted in the mountains. This statement is confirmed by the old shepherd whom Jocasta had charged with the task of exposing her babe. Thus the ancient prophecy has been fulfilled in each dreadful detail. Jocasta in her horror hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his eyes. Then he imposes on himself the penalty of exile which he had promised for the murderer of Laius.
Cast (I'll be putting this in all future reviews):
Oedipus – Ralph Fiennes
Priest – David Burke
Creon – Jasper Britton
Teiresias – Alan Howard
Jocasta – Clare Higgins
Stranger from Corinth – Malcolm “I wanna tell you a” Storry
Shepherd – Alfred Burke
Messenger – Gwilym Lee
Boy (bet he was chuffed when his agent rang and said “You’ll be playing ‘Boy’. By the way, its not a speaking part darling, but you do get to be hauled around the stage wearing a collar and lead by a mad, blind soothsayer”) – Reece Beaumont
The Paula Yates “Fifi Trixibelle” Award 2008 for the most cringeworthy name given to a child goes to the parents of: Shannon-Fleur Roux (who played “Child”).
Let’s face it, it ain’t a great play. All the exciting bits take place off stage, and the characters just stand there talking about them. Babies are found on barren hillsides with their feet bolted together. Kings are waylaid en route to Delphi and slaughtered. The Sphinx gets defeated. The people of Thebes are plague-ridden and starving. Women are having miscarriages in the street. Jocasta hangs herself. Oedipus rips out his own eyes with brooch pins. All chances for a bit of coup de theatre? Nah, thought Sophocles, too much unnecessary padding. I’ll just have them all happen off stage and then someone the audience have never seen before can wander on and declaim about them. Usually someone called “Stranger from Corith” or “Messenger”.
Well, the place was packed out (apart from the seat right in front of me, strangely). There were even people standing at the back of the circle – one of whom stood there jangling her bracelets so much it sounded like a canteen of cutlery being thrown down the stairs. Thankfully someone a few seats away got to her first, otherwise I would have turned round and slapped the bitch. Given the crush, I thought it pretentious to the nth degree of the director to give 8 members of the Chorus seats in a block in the auditorium, have them sit it them for the first 2 minutes, then get out of them and clamber up onto the stage, leaving their seats bathed in a pool of light for the remainder of the play. I can image the House Manager tearing his hair out and screaming “We could have sold those seats! They’re in the front two rows!” I suppose, however, given the nature of some of Oedipus’ “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speeches, that it was being implied that we were all Citizens of Thebes watching the action from our seats in the amphitheatre. “We must involve the audience in the action, love! Make them feel part of the play!” But I bet the poor sods standing at the back of the circle jiggling from one foot t'other were pig sick.
I strongly suspect that this production is enjoying the “David Tennant’s in Hamlet” factor, and that there were a lot of people there who thought “Oooooh, lets go see Ralphie in something – anything!” because I can’t see that so many people would otherwise give up their Friday night to see a dreary play that’s been boring people for 2,500 years. I tried with this, I really did. Maybe it was the awful heat inside the theatre – it had touched 70 degrees during the day, but the NT management noticed that the calendar said “October” and thought “We’ll put the heating on”. Maybe it was because I’d had an exhausting week and was tired. Maybe its because, as Him Indoors pointed out afterwards (cue Zippy from Rainbow voice): “You’re not a Classicist, Jeffery. You may not have liked it but this production will be acclaimed”. But it was hard going; I found myself glancing at my watch after the first 30 minutes, which is always a bad sign. It just never seemed to get going until the last 10 minutes.
I also had trouble with Mr. Fiennes’ Dec/Lam/A/Tory/Style/Of/De/Liv/Er/Ing/His/Lines in a way that made him sound Like/A/Con/Sti/Pat/Ed/Da/Lek with an audible pause Be/Tween/Ev/Er/Y/Syll/Ab/Le – he was the only person on stage doing so and it was really, really irritating (mind you, given that he’s shaved his head for this role, I thought the line “My hair is standing on end” extremely funny – unfortunately nobody else did so my snort was probably heard by those in the front row). More irritating, even, than Alan Howard’s strange accent which wandered from Aberdeen to East Ham via Birkenhead and the Channel Islands and back via Donegal. Clare Higgins was good as Jocasta, but the story from her point of view has lost the ability to shock – I mean, you can see women who find out that their son is the father of their kids any day you care to mention on the Jeremy Kyle Show – so any actress playing this part is basically just chewing the scenery. But at least she chewed it with conviction and gusto.
I think I've said it before in this blog but I looooooong to see a play of this period done in Ancient Greek costume (ah, I remember, it was in the "Women of Troy" review. Putting all the men in white shirts and black suits and the one woman in a black cocktail frock and stillies is just LAZY. I imagine the co-called "Costume Designer" ringing round the cast and saying "We've got Ralph Fiennes in the cast, love, so budget's tight. Have you got a black suit you can use? Fab. See you at the dress rehearsal."
I got far more enjoyment out of reading the essays in the programme than I did the play itslelf. Some people are so up themselves. “Some interpreters have argued that in this hero, Sophocles confronts his audience with the absolute injustice (from the human perspective) of divine predetermination, and with the feebleness of human cognition and agency in the context of the forces that run the universe”. Say wha’? Try this – “For all that, in fitting the Oedipus myth into the Procrustean bed of his own system, [Freud] lost some of its profounder connections with that strange protean process known as psychoanalysis.” Or this: “It is [Oedipus’] over-urgent knowingness that facilitates his ability to answer the notorious riddle of the Sphinx”. Oh, yeah right.
And I also got a great deal of evil pleasure when, about 5 minutes from the end of the play, someone just across the aisle from me gave the loudest and most protracted snore I think I’ve ever heard - like a walrus with sinus trouble. I really couldn’t have put it more succinctly myself.
What the critics thought:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2008/oct/16/theatre2 (almost as pompously worded as some of the articles in the programme)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7670001.stm (good to see that someone is obviously on the same wavelength as me!)