Sophocles'Oedipus the King
Directed by William Kerley
Translated by Don Taylor

National Youth Theatre of Great Britain
Bloomsbury Theatre, London, 7-19 September 1998

Reviewed by Antony Keen
Department of Classics
Royal Holloway, University of London

In the Mel Smith film The Tall Guy there is a parody of the worst form of West End stage musical, where a chorus of men and women rush around the stage in pseudo-Victorian outfits delivering syncopated verse set to music in a mixture of singing and chanting. I mention this because the Chorus in the National Youth Theatre's production of Oedipus the King, part Boy Scout Gang Show, part voodoo ritual and part Les Miserables, reminded me forcefully of it.

The National Youth Theatre has a reputation for producing young theatrical talent -- Helen Mirren being the most often cited. If there is a revelation lurking in this production, however, it seems most likely to be that young actors learn their trade these days through intense watching of television. Now, over-emphasized working-class accents and shouting may suit the nuances of soap opera, but one wonders at its applicability to Sophoclean tragedy, though one scene which threatens to get out of control, the interrogation of the Theban shepherd by Oedipus, in the end is actually infused with real passion and pathos.

However, the Chorus' role in proceedings is rather vague. It has been changed from the elders of Thebes to the general population (perhaps to allow it to be half women), and its members double as most of the minor characters. Fortunately, their exit to these roles and return to the Chorus is usually well-hidden, and their is a particularly effective moment when Teiresias appears from behind them, looking as if he's always been in that position, though it was empty moments before. Sadly, the effect is rather ruined by the performance of the actor in the role, which is clearly meant to be a Haitian witch-doctor, but ends up sounding more like Yoda from Star Wars.

Three roles are played by dedicated actors not in the Chorus, Creon, and Jocasta. In the role of Creon is Pepe Balderrama, who bears a resemblance to the young Brian Blessed. He is obviously aware of this, since his performance is an impersonation of Blessed's, involving a lot of SHOUTING. As anyone who has seen a Christian Slater movie knows, actors impersonating their heroes can wear out their welcome very quickly, and so it proves in this case. The result is a Creon that will seem rather unfamiliar. If he is innocent of bribing Teiresias, it would seem that this only because the idea had not yet occurred to him. This Creon is clearly waiting for his opportunity to oust Oedipus, and when he professes to have no interest in the crown, the insincerity in his words is palpable. This is a novel approach, but does it not undercut Oedipus' paranoia to show that his anger at Creon is not entirely misdirected.

Tom Padden as Oedipus is drawing from a different tradition, and sounds a bit like a young Olivier, though not as good. His Oedipus is rather colourless, and one gets little sense of the passion that drives Oedipus to his terrible discovery; he seems to set on his course of investigation because he had nothing else to do. Only Martha Swann's Jocasta on the stage for too little, has genuine presence and maturity, a breath of fresh air when she enters. If a new Mirren is anywhere amongst the cast, it is here.

Overall, the production misses much of the irony of Sophocles. This may be partly because of the text; Taylor's translations of the Theban plays and the three Euripides plays he has published seem to be the first choice for a production not using its own, but irony is not always one of his strong points. Partly, however, the fault lies with the production, though they can sometimes do it -- Oedipus engages in a long loving kiss with Jocasta at the death of his supposed father, thinking that he can never fulfil that part of Apollo's prophecy, but then breaks away with a cry of "Mother!", meaning in his own head his Corinthian mother, but the irony is there for the audience.

On the production side, they have borrowed the central European late 19th century look that Taylor had used in his own television production of 1986. It may have been an innovative approach then (for Greek tragedy, if not for Shakespeare), but it's old hat now. It's also sometimes unintentionally funny -- after seeing the Theban shepherd in a pink dressing- gown, fans of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy may expect him to ask where the tea is. One must also question the direction of a play where Oedipus spends so much time speaking his lines toward the rear of the stage, with his back to the audience.

Then, just as I had written this production off, they did something remarkable, that I have never seen before. As the blinded Oedipus is led off and the Chorus chant "call no man fortunate before he is in his grave", the stage becomes lighter, a cult statue is restored to an upright position, and flowers are strewn around. Every other production of Oedipus I have seen has, taking its cue from Sophocles' text, focused at the end on the destruction of the king; the NYT's production remembers that Oedipus' downfall is also the lifting of the plague from Thebes.

Nonetheless, this is not overall a successful production. The problem, I feel, is that Oedipus has been picked for production simply because the NYT had never done it before. I wonder whether there is any real point in doing Greek tragedy, and particularly one so regularly performed, if you have nothing to say other than that you can do it.

Antony Keen
Department of Classics
Royal Holloway, University of London