BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 18 June, 1998

When Peter Oswald's translation of the play whose title he insists on spelling as Oedipus Tyrranos was first performed just down the road from BAC early in 1994, the lights failed on the first night. No danger of that in Tom Morris's production, the centrepiece of BAC's current "Playing In The Dark" season, which takes place in pitch blackness from beginning to end. Even the emergency lights are extinguished; if we require assistance, we are instructed somehow to gain the attention of the house manager. (Morse code with a cigarette lighter, perhaps?) A web of poles and ropes lattices through the studio space, both in the central area and behind the in-the-round seating, to enable the actors to navigate around and amongst us, so that a speech may begin unexpectedly just behind one's right ear. Percussion noises of wood and stone periodically strike up, along with frankly unnecessary whispers, usually of the single word "Oedipus!"

Tam Dean Burn's appearances in the like of Spencer Hazell's overrated Seizer and Irvine Welsh's dire You'll Have Had Your Hole (with Burn in each case dwarfing the material he was given) lead one to think of him principally as a wild, almost volcanic force of nature. The rich, chocolate mellifluousness of his voice is generally under-utilised by directors; as Oedipus, he paces and pitches his lines brilliantly, in a performance which recalls his magnificence in Angus Reid's Believer several years ago coincidentally, also a piece concerning blindness of one sort and another.

It is a bold idea of Morris's so to dramatise the motifs of seeing and sightlessness by removing from the audience all visual stimulus and forcing us to "see" with our mind's eye, but it is an idea whose practical ramifications may not have been anticipated. Such complete deprivation for such a period can cause episodes of disorientation or even panic; the man beside me admitted afterwards that he had had to leave for fear of "freaking out". Moreover, as in an isolation tank, the mind is freed not simply to interpret more vibrantly the stimuli it does receive, but to ignore them altogether and strike off on its own flights; put bluntly, at any moment a whim or lateral association may distract one from the play. There are occasional moments of immense power: Oedipus's realisation that he has after all realised the prophecies made for him and invoked his own curse, for instance, prefigured by Jocasta's earlier realisation which manifests primarily in stifled sobs from Denise Evans. Overall, though, I am afraid that the words which spring to mind are that weasel phrase "an interesting experiment".

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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