Sophocles, Oedipus Rex
A Choral Experiment adapted byJennifer McInnes
Wednesday, October 5, 1994
University of New England,
Dept Classics & Ancient History,
University of New England,
Jennifer McInnes' adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus the King was staged as part of the course requirements for a third year Theatre Studies unit in the Department of Theatre Studies at the University of New England, Armidale.
Ms McInnes' adaptation (heavily cut to fit into a required fifty minute performance time) was generated by a concern that many modern adaptations of Greek theatre pay too little attention to the role of the chorus. The question she set herself to test, as she puts in in her `Director's Notes', was this: `the chorus could conceivably be cut from the play without damaging the story line - so why is it there?'
Her performance attempted to provide a dramatic answer to this question. It was, however, based `on the premise that the Chorus is an integral part of the structure of the play, that it sets the mood and forms the environment in which the tragedy occurs. In short, the chorus is the setting of the play'. The version of Oedipus used was an amalgam of what she saw as the most attractive sections from the translations of Arnott, Fagles, Kitto, and Roche.
Jennifer McInnes means of testing the ability of a chorus to sustain an adaptation of Sopholces' play involved her keeping the choral sections of the play more or less uncut. All choral interludes were performed. To deemphasize the spoken sections of the play, a mercilessly cut version of the episodic material was prerecorded and played over a sadly inadequate PA system (no fault of McInnes) to a largely motionless Oedipus and chorus (whose movements in these sections were restricted to corporeal responses to the dialogue). McInnes remarks: `what we have attempted to do, by the use of movement and music, is to create an environment in which a production of Oedipus Rex could occur.'
Ms McInnes lavished considerable attention on her foregrounded chorus. Not only did they receive the lion's share of acting time, but they were allowed to dance (choreographed by Ruby Boukabou) and they were also allowed to sing (to original music composed for a saxophone quartet by Richard Peter Maddox).
It was no easy matter to gauge the success of the experiment, so bedevilled was the performance by that bad PA. The spoken sections became at times muffled and hard to follow. The diction of the chorus was not always pellucid, which rendered some of their sung material also difficult to follow.
I doubt that Aristotle would have enjoyed the version. Without other actors with whom Oedipus could test himself, it became very difficult to sense a trajectory of development in his perception of his ever more dour circumstances. Oedipus' performance, reduced to a series of tableaux, lacked the capacity or vitality to arouse the sort of identification Aristotle so admires. On the other hand Baudrillard might have liked it. This intensely static version (neither the music not the dancing varied in emotional timbre) offered a flat, fragmented, alienated version of Sophocles' play that, if nothing else, matches the mind-set we are told belongs to the post-industrial 90's.
I prefer my beer colder. Removing the episodes removes the excitment and the emotional intensity to which I'd been taught the chorus like to register. But McInnes' experiment ought not be judged for what it was not. She produced an interesting, occasionally serpentine experiement. It was a new Oedipus for me.
Peter Toohey is associate professor of Classics at the University of New England.