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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Olivier Theatre      2008-2009

This monster of a tragedy, granddaddy of all tragedies, the one that defines the word (literally - Aristotle based his literary analysis on it), may be too big, too full of metaphysical implications and human suffering to be fully captured in any one production, any more than there can be a definitive King Lear or Hamlet.

So when a production such as this one captures an awful lot of it, we mustn't complain (though I undoubtedly will a bit, later on) about what's missing.

Using a smooth and unobtrusive new adaptation by Frank McGuinness, director Jonathan Kent sets the play in modern dress. Stiff-backed and controlled in his Saville Row suit, Ralph Fiennes begins more as a seasoned executive than politician or royal.

He addresses a problem (the curse on Thebes) with the confidence that his intelligence and determination will plough right through it, and when the task shifts to discovering the murderer of the former king, he takes on the job of detective with the relish of the born problem-solver.

Fiennes gives us a fully rounded and human picture of the man at the top of his powers, so that, as the investigation starts pointing toward him, the inexorable cracking of his confidence and growing of his difficult-to-repress panic is very real and moving.

Where Fiennes' portrayal begins to fall short is in depicting the ultimate tragedy, the larger-than-life quality of Oedipus' tragedy and the depths of his unbearable horror and pain.

Legend has it that Laurence Olivier triumphed in the second half of the play fifty years ago, but Fiennes' Oedipus seems to shrink rather than grow as his tragedy unfolds (and we are too aware of the debt his offstage cry of ultimate horror owes to the sound engineer).

Put another way, we feel Aristotle's pity, but not the awe and horror that should accompany it.

But as I said, a perfect Oedipus is too much to ask for, and everything else about this production is as good as Fiennes as his best.

Clare Higgins is both passionate and maternal as Jocasta, Alan Howard a world-weary Teiresias and Jasper Britton a casual Creon who obviously resents having the job of king dumped on him at the end.

One of the mysteries of Greek drama is how the Chorus was played - we know there was music and movement involved, but not how. Director Kent first plants the members of his Chorus in the audience and has them drawn onstage, their spoken responses to the action evolving into operatic singing (music by Jonathan Dove) that is appropriately evocative and eerie.

And it is the small touches that make the human drama work. When Fiennes' Oedipus gets down to work, he takes off his jacket and rolls up his sleeves. But that visual symbol of determination slips into casualness and then disarray as the play progresses.

And watch how, at the very end, the child we know will grow up to be Antigone announces her personality-in-embryo by breaking from Creon to help her blinded father.

It is on that level - the human-sized story - that this Oedipus triumphs.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Oedipus - National Theatre 2008

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