Oedipus Rex

Impulse Theatre Production of Oedipus the King 2003 -Sydney Morning Herald Review.

oedipusSophocles’s play, circa 430 BC, is the tragic masterpiece of what survives of ancient Greek theatre. Yet it’s not a masterpiece based on narrative surprise, then or now. It’s crucial to understand that the original Athenian audience knew every twist and turn of the story.

It explains why the blind seer Tiresias, the first major character we meet after the king, explicitly tells Oedipus what’s going to happen: “father killer, and father supplanter” he calls him, and predicts that “he that came seeing, blind shall he go”.

Oedipus spends the play gradually proving Tiresias right. It’s an uncannily odd prefiguring of the detective story genre: the king assembling the evidence that proves his own guilt. All the predicted oracular actions have occurred – Oedipus’s narrative is about his discovery that, despite everyone’s efforts, he has fulfilled the prophecy.

Even the chorus are given to occasional flights of optimism: it’s only the audience that can appreciate the full arc of this tragedy, who understand the irony of its character’s statements and can appreciate the inherent self-deceptions and find catharsis in the moment when Oedipus finally understands what we’ve known all along.

This version, directed by Stephen Wallace, is billed as a “Grotowski workshop”, in regards to the late Polish director’s style. Audiences are welcome to turn up an hour early to watch the cast warm up. Often productions dedicated to a particular performance style can use the text as an excuse for stylistic pyrotechnics and barren “look at me” performance athletics.

Fortunately, this is not the case here. Much guff has been opined about the revered Jerzy Grotowski but his key concerns were about simplicity (stripping away everything non-essential), the centrality of the actor to the creation of meaning, and ritualistic, essentialist physicality.

The production is certainly an example of the poor theatre – there are no set, almost no props and very simple costuming. The Grotowski influence also shows in its careful but subtle physicality, an economy of character-identifying gesture and simple but affecting grouping of performers.

It’s a crystal-clear version of E.F Watling’s venerable but sturdily functional translation. Graeme Rhodes’s Oedipus is very good, a quick-witted and haughtily aggressive version of a king who would have been much better off if he wasn’t so quick to anger. Aimee Moffatt’s Jocasta, Mark Newsam’s Tiresias and Caroline Downs’s Shepherd are also strong.

It’s arguable the deep taboos of the play have sadly lost their ability to arouse visceral shock. Patricide barely makes the news these days and American TV talk shows happily put on shows about incest.

Still, there’s some levelling venom in Sophocles yet: “Then learn that mortal man must always look to his ending. And none can be called happy until that day when he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace.”

You can run from fate, but you can’t hide.

By Stephen Dunne
July 16 2003