Saturday, 3 January 2009


14/11/08, Olivier
1hr 30’ approx, no interval

Ralph Fiennes as O; Claire Higgins as Jocasta; Alan Howard as Tiresias; Malcolm Storry (very good) as the messenger from Corinth; Alfred Burke (also very good and rather touching – snowy white beard, must be about 80) as the shepherd reluctantly revealing all. Starry, starry cast.

Played on a stage almost bare but for a vast pair of doors and a kind of long pub garden table with benches downstage R, where the chorus sat (old men all, dark suits, no ties) and onto which O climbed now and then to make a point (white shirt, dark suit, red tie at the start, very much the CEO grappling with a little local difficulty in the plague afflicting Thebes; jacket off, tie gone as the plot develops and his situation unravels). The doors gradually turned with the revolve through 360 degrees (how come the table didn’t move when part of it overlapped the revolve: little wheels?), and then dropped with a clang through the floor at the very end – the old order destroyed. O and J came and went through the doors as did the final messenger, bearing news of J’s suicide and O’s self-blinding; the other messengers and Creon, returning from the oracle at Delphi, came from the back of the stage where a vast cyclorama opened clangorously to admit them.

The chorus sang (music by Jonathan Dove) harmoniously, rarely in unison, the songs developing almost naturally from spoken dialogue: the best integration of chorus and music I’ve ever heard in a production of a Greek tragedy. The translation was by Frank McGuinness, with some colloquialisms but formal enough to bear the weight of meaning and emotion these plays carry. The girls thought Fiennes too declamatory: I thought he was just right, because you can’t do Greek tragedy naturalistically. He was brilliant at the moment he realises the full horror of his situation – a great wordless scream, crescendo, downstage centre. The coughers were out in force, but that stilled ‘em. Jocasta good too – especially when she has realised (before O) what is about to be revealed and urges him desperately to go no further, to ask no more questions.

There’s no deus ex machina in this one, but the gods are present throughout, especially Apollo, who has foretold/decreed the whole thing. O is in many ways an admirable man, but he and the rest are trapped in an unfolding sequence of events through no fault of their own. That’s the big difference between these tragedies and Shakespeare’s, where the protagonists’ downfall is at least partly their own fault, the result of some tragic flaw in their character. “As flies are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport,” is Lear’s assessment and applies well enough to the Greeks but not to his own tragedy because Shakespeare was writing in the light of 1500 years of Christian ideas of sin, redemption, free will and the rest.*

The most interesting character is Creon (Jasper Britton), a politician. He counters O’s initial suspicion of his motives by asking why he should bother to destroy the king when as the king’s brother-in-law and gatekeeper he has the best of both worlds: power, with none of the responsibility. But when responsibility is thrust upon him at the end he exercises it ruthlessly, confirming O’s banishment.

A moment of confusion: Jocasta is dead and O blinded; the messenger emerges from the palace to tell us. He is white-shirted and shaven-headed, like O. Is it O, you ask yourself. But he’s wearing braces, from which you deduce he’s not.

The girls didn’t much care for it. At the end as the blind Oedipus is led away by his daughter Antigone and the chorus spread out, walking slowly towards stage L, S beside me made a suppressed noise. I thought she was snivelling. In fact she was giggling: she said it reminded her of a zombie movie. A was apparently asleep for most of it. I was shaken, if not exactly stirred.

*Discussing this with my daughter subsequently, she tells me I’m wrong. Sophocles’ tragic heroes are trapped not only by the gods but by their own failings. Oedipus’ fate was confirmed when he succumbed to pride and anger and slew the stranger in a chariot (his father, though he didn’t know it) who whipped him as he passed. On the other hand, surely, Apollo would have found some other way to ensure his prophecy was fulfilled… K seemed to suggest the tragedy lay both in our heroes’ own failings and in the inexorable workings of fate.

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