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A CurtainUp London London Review

This day you will see your real self and it will destroy you— Tiresias
Alan Howard as Teiresias and Ralph Fiennes as Oedipus
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus is unique among Greek tragedies in that one hundred percent of the audience will have heard of the background myth. This is both an advantage, in reproducing the original tension between the audience's knowledge and the characters' ignorance, but also an obstacle, in the common misconception that the eponymous hero suffers from the familiar Freudian complex.

Rather than presenting a purely psychological dilemma, this is really a play about the limitations of human comprehension and the inescapable onslaught of harrowing catastrophe. Therefore, a strong production is needed to dispel the popular misapprehension about this play and portray Oedipus' inexorable progress towards simultaneous enlightenment and doom.

Jonathan Kent's production has all the elements which promise to achieve this: a new, accessible version of the text by Frank McGuinness and a stellar cast of Ralph Fiennes, Clare Higgins and Alan Howard. With a contemporary style, this Oedipus has a dark, urgent energy and successfully elicits the play's core themes of light versus darkness, and sight versus blindness.

Paul Brown's set design features a gargantuan, burnished bronze doorway set upon a curved stage which rotates at an almost imperceptible rate. With its spread of verdigris, it resembles a globe and so promotes a sense of the tragedy's scope and universal application. Further clever touches include the stage's backdrop opening upon the augur Teiresias' arrival to reveal trees infested with crows. The modern lighting is stark and harsh throughout, contributing to an overall sleek yet austere looking production.

By virtue of his name alone, Ralph Fiennes probably accounts for a large proportion of ticket sales and, as the sharp-suited demagogue with a violent temper, he is sympathetically, if not all-consuming, wrenchingly tragic. Perhaps slightly miscast, Fiennes needs to add a more alpha male presence. Sophocles' Oedipus is the finest specimen of humanity: an intelligent, active and caring leader. Nevertheless, he is still subject to the relentless impetus of his appalling fate and herein lies both his tragedy and, by implication, that of the entire mortal race. Fiennes does not quite convey this fully, nor does his Oedipus retain a majestic power in the midst of his descent from civilised leadership to primeval annihilation. He is also undermined by the lack of emphasis on the plague. The disease ravaging the city is both the spur to the plot and the reason for Oedipus' dedication to uncovering the truth, a testament to his responsible guardianship of his citizens. Stripped of this motive, Oedipus' revelatory quest appears to be mere stubbornness.

Alan Howard's exemplary performance as Teiresias turns what is on the page a fairly small part into the key which unlocks the play's core. As the blind seer, he provides a glimpse of truth among the human race crippled by ignorance and Howard's sheer gravitas means that this Teiresias is more than a match for Oedipus. Even the chorus squirm and flee from his portentous tones and energy, as he demonstrates a tiny glimmer of the gods' terrifying power.

Clare Higgins is an emotionally powerful Jocasta, with an expressive, sincere and charged performance, especially when recounting the calculated destruction of her baby years earlier or when, having realised the awful truth about her marriage, she desperately tries to save Oedipus from the devastating truth. Adding superb support is Jasper Britton's Creon who punchily delivers political speeches with rhetorical and charismatic flamboyance before finally shifting into brutality when confronted by the unnatural polluter of the city.

The chorus of Theban elders are a traditional, although modern-suited, band of old men. Greek choruses are always problematic and alien to modern stage practice, as they pause the action with poetic circumlocutions and obscure messages. Although the chorus here achieves a certain level of clarity, they fail to portray much depth of raw emotion and at times, their conventional singing is strongly reminiscent of a Welsh male choir. Nevertheless, because they are somewhat lacklustre and uninspiring, they suitably reflect the mediocre norm of humanity and thus provide a good counterpoint to the main characters who are great, renowned figures of myth.

McGuinness' translation is accessible and informal but sometimes sacrifices the visceral, graphic physicality of Sophocles' text. Also, the dialogue frequently dips into anomalous low register colloquialisms which sound jarringly modern. Nevertheless, apart from this and a few brash, over-obvious directorial choices, this is still a fine production which tackles a truly monumental play. Oedipus Tyrannus ranks as one of the greatest tragedies of Western literature and this impressive effort engages with the colossal work, demonstrating its timeless relevance which strikes straight to the heart of humanity and the mortal condition.

Written by Sophocles
In a new version by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Jonathan Kent

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Alan Howard, Clare Higgins, Jasper Britton
With: Derek Barnes, Patrick Brennan, Alfred Burke, David Burke, Edward Clayton, Sam Cox, Russell Dixon, Darren Fox, Richard Freeman, Gwilym Lee, Neil McCaul, Paul McCleary, Seymour Matthews, Stanley Page, Steven Page, Christopher Saul, David Shaw-Parker, Malcolm Storry, Robert Willox
Designer: Paul Brown
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music: Jonathan Dove
Music director: Derek Barnes
Movement director: Denni Sayers
Sound design: Paul Groothuis
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 4th January 2009
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 24th October 2008 performance at The Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Tube: Waterloo)
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