Playhouse, Edinburgh
August, 2010

We live in a debased age, when melisma is a pointless vocal gymnastic exercise in every other pop or RnB song, when stage musicals not only pre-plan their encores but include them in the printed running order. But briefly in Edinburgh we have been reminded of a truer time, at once from decades and from centuries ago. Lee Breuer’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus At Colonus into a gospel church service was first seen here as a work-in-progress on the Fringe in 1982; in 2010 it plays the 3000-capacity Playhouse as part of the International Festival, and its atmosphere fills the building.

Sophocles’ latest surviving play, in which the aged Oedipus finds welcome in the grove of Colonus near Athens and dies there in peace, adapts well to a celebration of Christian values of mercy and redemption. Oedipus is portrayed collectively by The Blind Boys Of Alabama, possibly the most renowned group still surviving from the mid-20th-century golden age of gospel; when the blinded former king first enters the grove, he is repulsed with a chorus of “Stop! Do Not Go On” by The Legendary Soul Stirrers, from whose ranks half a century ago emerged Sam Cooke. Even the preacher whose spoken sermon passages bridge the musical numbers, the Rev Dr Earl F Miller, bears a slight resemblance to the Rev Al Green.

The performers (who enter through the auditorium, taking our hands as they pass) do not act the story out in a theatrical sense, but enact it as they flow across the stage in musical numbers scored by Bob Telson which range from a simple solo ode to a stately hymn to an all-out jubilee. The venerable Blind Boy-in-chief Jimmy Carter (not that one) is at one vocal climax hoisted up bodily by one of the chorus, and is later carried offstage to Oedipus’ final resting place on a grand piano lid. There is little need for the vaguely celestial-looking but frankly impenetrable series of paintings projected on to the ruined-temple set; all the colour and action required are provided by the cast as, dressed in African-American finery, they ensure that we cannot remain deaf to the message. Jevetta Steele as Ismene and Willie Rogers of the Soul Stirrers have supremely sweet voices, and on Saturday evening the second-act celebration of Oedipus’ ascension “Lift Him Up” drew two spontaneous encores and a standing ovation with ten minutes still to go. Even the most staid of the Edinburgh audience almost managed to clap along properly on the off-beat. Almost.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2010

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage