The Oedipus Plays

in a new translation by Ranjit Bolt
directed by Sir Peter Hall
featuring Alan Howard as Oedipus
30 November 1996
Olivier Theatre
Royal National Theatre
Upper Ground
South Bank
London SE1 9PX

Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch
School of Theatre Studies
University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL

The operative question with regard to this production is 'Why?' Why choose to present these plays as a double bill when they draw on different variants of the myth and were written at least 30 years apart? Why translate tragedy into rhyming couplets more appropriate for comedy? Why cut the OC to the point of pointlessness? ('Why was that a play?' my companion asked afterwards.) Why avoid visual continuity between the two plays? Why avoid eye-contact between the actors at critical moments? And why have reviewers been impressed? Why was the house full on closing night when classicists would be bound to object to the heavy cuts and ordinary theatergoers leave baffled? And, most important of all, why wasn't it better?
Conditions were perfect. Hall had the Olivier to work in, a theater whose structure was inspired by the one at Epidaurus, though on a smaller scale. The cast included several veterans of Hall's own unforgettable 1981 Oresteia, and all were experienced actors. Ranjit Bolt had produced an eminently playable translation for Hall's production of Lysistrata at the Old Vic in 1993. The designers are all stars in their own right. All the right ingredients for a brilliant, epoch-making production. Yet even at the end of a long run The Oedipus Plays failed to cohere.

Visually, Oedipus Tyrannos was very impressive. The circle of the orchestra was ringed with oil drums, the air thick with smoke and ash, the lighting predominantly red, the monolithic bronze skene (which in the low light looked sewn of rawhide) impassive, its doors obdurately, almost seamlessly closed above the huddled, crumpled, collapsed figures of actors who held so still that it was not until they moved that it was certain they were not dummies. The devastation of the plague was overwhelmingly apparent, heightening the urgency of the priest's plea on behalf of the people, of Oedipus' search for a solution. The masks read well from the back of the circle and were not obtrusive or awkward, but for the why of them one has to read Hall's program notes and see his belief in the necessity of masks for Greek theater. They did not openly justify themselves and they seem to have been responsible for the fact that all members of the cast faced directly out at the audience nearly all the time. The refusal of actors and chorus to face one another was disturbing, particularly when the old shepherd turned to face us just as Oedipus demanded 'Look me in the eye.'
Many of the tableaux created by this highly artificial staging were riveting, and if the actors had had no words to speak the exaggerated gestures of Jocasta clawing at her womb would have been appropriate, even acceptable. Yet even this fixed positioning was not used consistently--at some times the chorus would turn to look at Oedipus for a long stretch of time, then turn back, with no apparent motivation for either change of direction. Oedipus limped, a naturalistic touch which jarred with the prevailing stylization. The overwhelming impression was that the play had been staged as an opera, but the small inconsistencies broke the 'illusion' of a grand and different world on a larger-than-life scale and made the essential artificiality of the mise en scene a matter for resentment, not awe.
Worse yet, this operatic and often successful staging was incongruously grafted onto a clunking, often inadvertently funny text whose rhyme scheme lowered rather than elevated its tone. Nowhere was there a spoken equivalent to the operatic aria; nowhere an approximation of Sophocles' own language. The words were painful to hear from the time Oedipus opened his mouth, and the irritation increased. Bolt's lines were so forced that no actor, however good, could redeem them. The show would have been far more successful with no script at all, or in the original Greek. The music, while good enough in itself, seemed insufficient for the operatic context of the production, and the drums intruded at the least appropriate moments. If one had only been able to turn the sound off, it might have been quite good.
Most interesting, but also inconsistent, was the scene between Tiresias and Oedipus. Teiresias was all but naked, with a loincloth of straw at his waist and a crown of spikes, covered from head to foot with thickly caked white clay. An adorable child led him not by the hand but via a rope around his waist. Greg Hicks looked and moved like a tribal shaman on an overdose of peyote. He gave no indication of blindness, much less of old age. What he did show was a hermaphroditic physique: those were breasts under that dripping clay. His bodily movements were jerky, spastic, sometimes sexual, his spread-armed stance Christlike. As one possessed by the god he was convincing--but Tiresias is not supposed to be possessed, and he is supposed to have dignity, not to exist in degradation. This was not a man who appeared to have, want, or even comprehend the political power and material wealth which Oedipus accuses him of pursuing. Nor was he a member of the same culture as the rest of the cast (whose historical locus was rather vague to begin with), who all wore long flowing robes. Oedipus, despite his dignified hieratic gestures, came off as a chump. Not that Tiresias fared much better: Hicks wavered in and out of his convincing madness and delivered slangy, modern lines in a jocular tone which brought inappropriate laughs. The scene was a set-piece, rather than part of a whole. It was interesting, but still raised the inevitable 'Why?'
Yet if the production had ended with the OT, there would have been moderate grounds for the praise it has garnered. It was, in its way, awesome--if you could ignore the script. But by the time Oedipus blinded himself, the fires had burnt out metaphorically as well as literally. Going home at the interval was a serious temptation, and might have resulted in a more positive review.

Oedipus at Colonus was presented as an emergence into the light. The dominant reds of the previous play's lighting were gone, along with the oil drums. The dark exterior of the skene was replaced with bright silver metal in which iridescent circles shimmered, rather like a gift box. The long tongue of a ramp which had projected into midair in the OT and kept actors separate from chorus had come to earth, or rather to the flat white surface of the orchestra. At the top of the ramp there was a single artificial tree, its shape somewhere between an olive and a bonsai. The chorus wore white, and sang high and hymnlike, though the chorus of the OC is male. The costumes and masks of Oedipus and his family were bleached of their strong, violent reds and pitch blacks.

There was little choral narrative to fill in details, and nearly all the explanations and backgrounds provided by the speaking actors were cut from the script. This resulted in a fast-paced but barely-comprehensible play which did not appear to follow from its predecessor. There was no explanation for how the adult Antigone had come to join her father when, as a small unmasked girl at the end of the OT, she had been given over to Creon's care. Nor was there any attempt made to reconcile Creon's control of the city at the end of OT with Oedipus' curse on his sons for driving him out in OC. The result was not so much a play as a constant stream of entrances and exits in which the actors seemed, for the most part, insufficiently invested. Howard's Oedipus seemed to have lost his limp, and did not convince in his blindness, using his staff as a stage property, not a support or guide. Antigone (Tanya Moodie) and Ismene (Clare Swinburne) carried off their roles fairly well, but Greg Hicks failed to be even interesting, much less sympathetic, as Polynices. Creon's assegai-carrying soldiers were an impressive sight, but again the tribal touch jarred, out of place even in the rather eclectic world of the play. (Why metal for a sacred grove in the countryside?) Christian Burgess' Theseus was eminently forgettable, the political ramifications of his action downplayed in favor of a simplistic invocation of fate. Sophocles would not have recognized his last tragedy in this half-hearted, apparently unmotivated effort.

It is certainly true, as my companion remarked, that it is wonderful to see large audiences from all age groups attending a performance of Greek tragedy. Sir Peter Hall has done a great deal to increase the public profile of ancient theater. Nevertheless the paying public deserved better than it got, and Sophocles was sorely misrepresented.

Sallie Goetsch
University of Warwick
(Sallie Goetsch will be teaching Greek Tragedy in the Spring Term of 1997.)