Riverside Studios, London W6 / Touring; seen at South Hill Park, Bracknell
Opened 12 / 15 February, 2008
** / ***

Here’s a code to live by: never go to see more than one version of the Oedipus story in any given week. Sure, it’s in many ways the classic drama – sex, violence, family complications, public/private life, free will/destiny – but really, once a week is enough.
Irish company Pan Pan’s Oedipus Loves You begins with an Underworld-style electro number intoned by a naked man whose bits are tucked back between his legs. He’s Tiresias, of course, and in Simon Doyle and Gavin Quinn’s modernisation he is less a prophet than a shrink, getting the ur-dysfunctional family into counselling together. There’s Antigone, who’s at that awkward age, wanting to assert her own identity and playing in a band with her Aspergic uncle Creon; Jocasta, ready to berate anyone else or to hold forth on her own account; and Oedipus, who as ever is that bit too self-assured and clearly riding for a fall. It’s a potentially lovely idea, but as a production it exudes an earnestness that turns you against it. Quinn directs a Wooster Group-style multi-media deconstruction (in the very same space that hosted the Woosters’ most recent London visits), but one that feels rougher and less playful. Even the laughs, of which there are many, seem to be deployed with a behavioural scientist’s dispassion that robs them of actual humour.
Elsewhere, small-scale touring company Blackeyed Theatre present the stage premiere of Steven Berkoff’s 2000 version of the same story; I saw it at the beginning of its tour in Bracknell. Berkoff has already given the Oedipus myth a vigorous seeing-to in his 1980 play Greek, which transposes the action to an apocalyptic East End, but here he writes it straight. Well, as straight as Berkoff can: he shows characteristic relish in the imagery of the plague visited upon Thebes until King Oedipus finds out what mighty wrong has been committed and by whom (i.e by him). Of the cast of four, Matthew Rowlands-Roberts is the most fluent performer as Oedipus himself, although he would be far better off without that erratic Mockney accent. For the rest, Bart Lee’s production generally tries too hard to show how much can be done with limited resources. Live and recorded music, a voice-over for a flashback sequence in which Oedipus kills his father Laius, unnecessary mask sequences, a chorus actor who keeps popping up around the auditorium and (according to the programme) an utterly superfluous back-story to this particular staging concept, all diffuse the production’s fire-power. Pan Pan’s update is staged with appreciably more skill, but it is so very much more annoying.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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