Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 15 October, 2008

The Actor’s Wail is one of the enduring cliches of theatre. The queeny old thesps in Blackadder suggested that every major speech should begin with a Wail, but in practice few roles can accommodate one: Shylock, Lear of course, and indubitably Oedipus. In the title role here, Ralph Fiennes gets two Wails. The second is a miked-up roar from offstage before he re-enters at the end, having blinded himself. The first, though, as he realises he has failed to evade his destiny and has indeed murdered his father and slept with his mother, is a remarkable creation: it creeps out of horrified silence like an emphysemic wheeze, then builds up through Annoyed Seagull to Air-Raid Siren before finally subsiding into an exhausted growl. It did, on the press night, elicit one or two sniggers in the audience, but I think that on the whole he pulled it off.
Fiennes is quite a “naked” actor: he gives a clear view of his character’s inner workings (or, some would say, of the vocal and physical components from which he builds up his performance). This suits well with Sophocles’ play, which is equally unadorned in the terrifying inevitability of its story as Oedipus sets out to identify the source of the plague afflicting Thebes only to discover that it is he himself. It is the Citizen Kane of drama, a towering achievement almost at the very beginning of the form and one which the next 2400 years have been spent trying to match. Frank McGuinness’s versions of Greek tragedies are similarly spare and magnificent, the topsoil of ornamentation washed away to leave the astounding bedrock of the text. There is poetry enough, but it lies in the images evoked, not the language doing the evocation. The Chorus sums up the plague on the city: “God is on fire.” Creon, announcing the Delphic oracle’s ruling on the matter, declares simply, “Blood will have blood.” The final distich, usually rendered along the lines of “Call no man fortunate until he is dead”, is here the even more starkly fatalistic “Turn to dust, and be contented.”
Paul Brown’s set, too, is bare: a low, broad hump of verdigrised bronze surmounted by a huge pair of doors. The hump and doors revolve with excruciating slowness through the play (although the table at which the all-male Chorus sit is somehow fixed immobile), as Oedipus’s world also goes full circle, returning him to his starting point with a new and unendurable knowledge. On his final, blinded re-entrance, instead of swinging open, the doors shoot into the ground (director Jonathan Kent used a similar ploy 15 years ago with another Greek drama, collapsing the entire back wall at the climax of Medea).
Kent enjoys Rolls-Royce casting: Malcolm Storry and Alfred Burke as elderly shepherds, a brisk, no-nonsense Jasper Britton as Oedipus’s brother-in-law (and uncle) Creon, a puzzlingly accented Alan Howard as Teiresias (he might be trying to play the blind prophet as Irish, but Howard himself is so ineradicably English that he even wears grey socks with his sandals), and Claire Higgins as wife/mother/queen Jocasta. One should always watch Jocasta when the first shepherd-messenger tells Oedipus he was found as a babe on the mountainside; this is when she realises, ahead of him, that he is grown from the infant she had tried to put to death. Higgins (previously a tremendous Hecuba for Kent in another McGuinness rendering) is terrific here: without ever drawing attention to herself, she all but freezes, eyes closed and mouth open, then slowly turns her head away and begins to tremble in mute horror. This is the moment at which the queen outranks the prince of wails.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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