Oedipus the King

The Chorus  (Bríd Ní Chumhaill, Ann-Marie Taaffe, Audrey McCoy, Martin Burns and Liam Heslin) in 'Oedipus the King'. Photo: Marius Tatu

The Chorus (Bríd Ní Chumhaill, Ann-Marie Taaffe, Audrey McCoy, Martin Burns and Liam Heslin) in 'Oedipus the King'. Photo: Marius Tatu

Classic Stage Ireland have been quietly carving a niche for themselves in the Irish theatrical landscape over the last seven years. Devoting themselves exclusively to producing “the classics”, they have concentrated for the most part on Shakespeare and the Greeks, and their annual repertoire alternates between an ancient tragedy or comedy and a Shakespearean drama. More commendable than the company’s classic commitment, however, is their commitment to showcasing the less well-known plays of Jocasta (Lesa Thurman) makes an offering to the gods. Photo: Marius TatuSophocles, Aeschylus and their Elizabethan counterpart. In the last 12 months, for example, they have given us Shakespeare’s 'problem' play A Winter’s Tale and Euripides’ impenetrable tragedy of excess The Bacchae; the former produced with commendable rigour, the latter remaining unresolved.

Classic Stage Ireland are motivated not by the common belief in the universal resonance of the classics to contemporary life, but in the value of these plays on their own terms, without concession to modern tastes. It is a refreshing if not always successful approach – some of the classic plays just have not lasted the test of time – but with their latest production of the well-known Sophocles tragedy Oedipus the King, their resolute vision works well. The production is not going to set the world alight, but for a version of a play that is more than two thousand years old it is absolutely satisfying, illuminating the story and themes of the ancient story and giving something of a flavour of the idiosyncratic structure of Greek drama.

Andy Hinds' lucid production has the generic post-war feel that seems to have become the ubiquitous setting for ancient Greek plays. With a dull khaki palette for the meeting-room setting and non-specific peasant-type costumes, set designer Vincent Bell provides us with a visual reference that is more resonant today than plague, pestilence or a rampaging sphinx, the recent disasters that have afflicted the city-state of Thebes as Oedipus the King opens. For the CSI production, however, the modern references end here. Working from a clear translation by Peter Arnold, which is mercifully not without touches of humour, Hinds maintains the important role of the chorus as well as all references to the Gods’ and fate, the reverence to which seems so alien to a 21st century audience.

Oedipus (Andy Kellegher) and Creon (Michael Bates). Photo: Marius TatuThe story is so familiar to contemporary audiences, however, that little elucidation is needed. Oedipus’ journey has become the all-permeating cliché of modern psychology: a man kills his father and marries his mother, despite his best efforts to prevent his fate. Andy Kellegher plays Oedipus as quick to temper, so that we can see how he might have risen to the challenge presented so many years ago at the crossroads, where he committed the crime that seals his doom. So certain is Kellegher’s Oedipus in his own right and might, however – he is logical and just and a thorough ruler – that it seems a little suspicious that he has not suspected himself of the crime before. But no-one else has either: not Jocasta (Lesa Thurman), whose rational belief in free will is finally revealed as delusion; nor Creon (Michael Bates), whose measured responses even when challenged belies the cruelty he will show in Sophocles' next tragedy, as the Greek myth moves on to explore the fate of Oedipus' children.

As always with contemporary productions of Greek plays, the presentation of the chorus is fraught with unresolved problems. Hinds splits the choral voice between five actors, who speak alternately alone and in unison, and occasionally in song. The actors' different accents create a sense of varied status for the individual chorus members and this adds a richness to our understanding of their communal yet discrete voices; it also creates an interesting layered texture to the choral verses. However the five actors seem a little uncertain of their rhythms and sound more like they are interrupting or undercutting each other rather than finding themselves in harmony. The on-stage appearance of the children at the end is also questionable, threatening to tip the dispassionate tone over into melodrama.

But overall Classic Stage Ireland present a competent version of Oedipus the King, one which is thoroughly watchable and occasionally moving, and that is not a bad achievement considering the material they are working with is over two thousand years old.

Sara Keating writes about theatre for The Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Oedipus the King by Sophocles

19 - 31 July, 2010

Produced by Classic Stage Ireland
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Andy Hinds

Set Design: Vincent Bell

Costume Design: Jill Anderson and Rosie O’Keefe Doyle

Lighting Design: Zia Holly

Music and Sound Design: Miriam Ingram and Colin Morris

With: Michael Bates, Martin Burns, David Ferguson, Liam Heslin, Andy Kellegher, Audrey McCoy, Brid Ni Cumhaill, Patrick O’Donnell, Ann-Marie Taaffe, Dick Tobin and Lesa Thurman.