The story of Oedipus, the man fated to kill his father and marry his mother, is perhaps the best-known of all the Ancient Greek plays, thanks in no small part to the mileage generations of psychologists have eked out of what they think the story says about the human subconscious. I trust that isn’t a spoiler; but after all the play lays out its cards from the start…
A new production of Sophocles’ classic tragedy is currently showing at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell. The relevance remains not only in the compelling psychological story, but also because this telling is transposed to an era of modern warfare, and the opening sight of a troop of soldiers (who here share the function of the Chorus) celebrating victory instantly recalls news footage of recent conflicts. The human consequences of warfare are creditably examined here too.
This truncated version of Sophocles text picks out the dichotomy between free will and predestination. Could Oedipus by his actions ever escape his curse? The role of the gods in the fates of humans is represented by Andrew Glen’s priest (a nice reminder that religious tub-thumpers pre-date the monotheisms), though for the most part it’s the currently extant gods who are called to, with the odd blasphemous cry of “Jesus Christ”, and sporadic cussing making for a translation that resonates today.
It’s produced by Lazarus Theatre Company, who have become a staple of London fringe theatre with their punchy and theatrically innovative retellings of the classics. Oedipus doesn’t disappoint, as it has all of the visual flair and concise storytelling you’d expect from a Lazarus production. Sound effects, smoke, lighting (including plenty of audacious but effective dusky backlighting) and movement combine to give the piece a cinematic flair – though the haunting sequence of nurses in gas masks is like something out of a horror film. I’m not sure whether that scared me more or the horrifying flashback induced by the smell of incense on walking into the auditorium.
Oedipus is a feast for the audio-visual senses, but that alone is not enough to carry Greek tragedy. It’s a great ensemble piece, but it benefits massively from Robin Holden’s assured central performance as Oedipus. He passes muster as a commander of an army, helped in no small measure by his crew cut and toned physique; but he makes his king arrogant enough to seal his own fate yet human enough for us to sympathise. Alec Parkinson is perfectly cast to provide a contrasting brotherly Creon, and their final scene together is a creditable emotional payoff. Samantha Andersen has a challenge with Oedipus’ wife Jocasta since she only makes her mark half way through (the underwriting of female parts being an age-old problem) though she copes admirably with dramatic changes of emotional gears over the space of a few short scenes.
There were a few instances where the sumptuous visual storytelling doesn’t marry comfortably with the stagey text. In such moments the action feels relatively static, especially when lengthy speeches or duologues followed short, movement-heavy scenes. There are exceptions to this, most especially Robin Holden’s lengthy monologue in which he comes to accept his fate. The delivery is chillingly good, and the silence and stillness surrounding him apposite and welcome. The effect is almost repeated later with Nasa Ohalet’s address, though there is slightly less impact from reportage than from a character whose journey we have followed.
The Blue Elephant Theatre continues to be warm oasis for great theatre. It’s easy to get lost in a show here, and the modernistic Oedipus is a story that will draw you in. After all, human nature hasn’t changed over a handful of millennia.