Sophocles' Oedipus Rex

Adapted by W.B. Yeats
Directed by Douglas Campbell

Stratford Festival Theatre*
Stratford, Ontario, Canada July 31 - October 11, 1997

Reviewed by Laurel Bowman
University of Victoria

This year's production of Oedipus Rex at Stratford is essentially a revival of the influential 1954/55 Stratford production, and has the strengths and weaknesses of the original. John Leberg's designs of the set and especially of the costumes and masks of the 1997 production are based on the 1954 designs of Tanya Moseiwitsch. Douglas Campbell, who played Oedipus in 1955 and directs the 1997 production, has used Tyrone Guthrie's direction of the earlier productions as a guideline for his own efforts. Campbell's son Benedict takes his place in the title role.

The production of Oedipus Rex was preceded by a recreation of a satyr play, done as a clown play. This was hilariously well done. All participants wore clown-noses, and many wore furry belts or little collections of balls dangling down from their navels as phalloi. The play was begun and ended by a male dancer wearing only a pair of shaggy trousers, who cried out and 'pulled' the actors onto the stage; he appeared throughout at crucial moments (standing behind the Sphinx, at the drinking party in Corinth) to guide the action, and is the only person on stage who does not wear a clown nose. He was clearly the figure of Dionysus.

The play was done essentially in mime, with a chorus calling out the names of the main characters as they entered, for the audience' information. The content was the previous history of Oedipus, up to the time of Sophocles' play; the play began with the marriage of Laius and Jocasta and ended with the marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta. When speech seemed called for it was usually gibberish. Almost the only intelligible speaker is the Sphinx, who spoke French until Oedipus arrived, and then (once) in English. The only other intelligible lines were spoken by a Tiresias-figure who calls out when the Sphinx gives her riddle, "what a stupid question! Anyone could answer THAT!" and again, at the wedding of Jocasta and Oedipus, "You know what THIS is going to lead to!"

The play was faithful to the bawdy tone of satyr plays, with many vulgar jokes - my favourite was the suggestion, hilariously acted out, that Polybus and Merope's failure to have children came of total sexual ignorance. The play served the double function of giving the audience a taste of satyr drama, and giving them the story of Oedipus, so that they could watch the tragedy with about as much information at their disposal as the Athenian audience would have had. It is a pity that the energy of the satyr play did not carry over into the main production.

With regard to the Oedipus Rex itself, I must begin by saying that the costumes were stunning. It is a novel pleasure to me to see an ancient play produced by people who actually have money to spend, and they have spent it well. All cast members are completely covered, gowned, masked and gloved; no skin appears on stage to break the illusion. While the masks were all three-quarter, cut to allow the audience to see the mouth and jaw of the actor, face-paint was used in the same shade as the mask to make the actor's face appear to be part of the mask. It was as if we were watching chess-pieces or life-size puppets move around and converse. The effect was to distance the audience from the action, and to engage the audience' interest precisely by the alien rather than the familiar nature of the characters and the play. This alienation of play from the daily experience of the audience oddly enough did not make the action less moving, but it encouraged the audience to watch the play with fewer automatic expectations, and bear in mind that Oedipus Rex, however apparently 'universal' its concerns, is very much a product of another culture.

The mob of plague-sufferers who first enter the stage in a cloud of smoke, symbolic of the pestilence on the city, wore black rags and greyish masks and gloves; the masks were strongly reminiscent of Munch's 'The Scream, skeletal and horrifying. The guards were equally arresting, with black boots, leggings, and long-sleeved leotard tops under half-sleeved tunic tops and skirts split to the waist on either side, to leave arms and legs free. This costume together with their flat, lupine grey masks was an eerie combination of Egyptian tomb paintings and Star Wars. While anachronistic - no Greek ever wore such an outfit - the costume gave them a menacing, inhuman air in keeping with their function as Oedipus' palace guard.

The chorus wore earth-tone creamy, brownish, or rust-coloured draped robes with wide, heavily pleated sleeves, and matching masks. Against the muted colours of the chorus the speaking actors stood out in costumes of metallic fabrics. Oedipus was entirely in gold, with a short tunic, long cape, leggings, and high platform boots, and a gold mask with long golden 'hair' neatly bound back until the final scene. His twisted gold sceptre and crown, and broad gold shoulder-chain, were worn or carried by Creon in the final scene, as marks of office. All other characters, and the chorus, wore floor-length draped robes. Creon's robes and crown were a greenish copper, and Jocasta wore a metallic orange bloused tunic and skirt. Tiresias stood out in pure white robes and mask, with a white twisted-wood staff used both as a badge of office and as a blind man's stick. His mask had exaggerated deep, shadowed eyesockets and a long pointed nose; the general effect was of an ancient bird of prey. All cast members wore gloves with long , exaggeratedly pointed fingers. The costumes were well designed to emphasize the grand, sweeping gestures used in the acting throughout the play.

In the final scene, Oedipus' second costume was a loose, blood-red floor-length poncho with pleated shoulders, and a gold mask with the exaggerated deep, empty eyesockets of the Tiresias mask. The mask's long, gold 'hair' was unbound and swept over his face and shoulders. The effect, of a man unkempt in an ecstasy of grief, was made more marked by its contrast with his first, neatly adorned and coiffed costume. Ismene and Antigone wore draped robes in the same deep blood-red, and arresting 'grief' masks - sad, white faces with dark shadows under the eyes and downturned mouths. The tableau of Oedipus clinging to his matching daughters was made the more striking by their visual 'blood'-red ties; and the action of the guards in tearing his daughters away from him, when they so obviously belonged together, was the more brutal.

The simple, undecorated wooden set acted as a backdrop to the vivid costumes. The stage was a 1/2 round, with built-up skene platform, two wing entrances and a central 'palace' entrance through two high, inward -opening doors set at a diagonal (see diagram).

The chorus for the most part stayed in the lower orchestral section, but the characters moved freely from skene to orchestra, frequently mingling with the chorus. The wooden altar at the center front was used by the suppliants in the first scene, and again by Jocasta when she sacrifices to Apollo. The chorus was used traditionally, i.e. they spoke in unison or through the single voice of the chorus leader. They did not attempt to dance, but at one point sang an ode to Apollo, very beautifully; I wish they had sung more. The chorus was used very actively to emphasize dramatic points in the play, and particularly effectively in showing the increasing isolation of Oedipus as the play progresses. Oedipus was with increasing frequency kept to one part of the stage, while the other characters and the chorus arranged themselves on the other side.

Oedipus' isolation in the last scene, where even the chorus leader turns away, his own daughters are ripped from his arms, and Kreon hesitates at length to touch him before just barely managing to brush the tips of his fingers, was thus shown as the culmination of a process begun much earlier in the play. His isolation was highlighted even more by the absence of a slave to guide him. Both Tiresias and the blinded Oedipus appear on stage alone, and find their way slowly and without assistance. Oedipus is guided back into the palace at the end of the play by guards who do not assist him, but simply block his path when he tries to turn in any other direction.

I have never before realised how effectively messenger speeches can move an audience, but the messenger speech in this production was the emotional high point of the play. Oedipus' actions were mimed by the messenger and his howls of agony were echoed by messenger and chorus, in a rapid, energetic delivery much at odds with the pace of the rest of the play. My companions, who did not know the play, were much affected by the speech; my usually stoical brother told me that tears came to his eyes.

The last scene as directed in this production highlighted the destruction and isolation of Oedipus' entire polluted family. All on stage departed, including the chorus, leaving the two girls, Ismene and Antigone, in a pool of light on the darkened stage, standing by the palace door. The final couplets were spoken by Antigone, and given particular, sinister significance thereby.

My one complaint about this production is that more of it wasn't like the messenger speech - fast-paced, energetic, and emotionally affecting. But barring occasional exceptions like the messenger speech, the play was kept quite slow-paced, with solemn, deliberate movements and slow, ponderous delivery. This was not the fault of the actors, whose performance was of a high professional calibre. In fact it was an entirely intentional effect on the part of the director, and was based on the approach of the 1954/55 production. Tyrone Guthrie's 1954 director's notes are reproduced in their entirety in the 1997 programme, as an aid to understanding the play. It was Guthrie's belief that Oedipus Rex was a dramatization of the annual scapegoat-sacrifice of the king, the basis (according to the Cambridge School of ritualists) of much Greek religion. The 1954 production of the play was therefore designed, with its slow, deliberate gestures and movement, and frequent carefully-posed tableaux, to assist the audience to grasp that they were watching a solemn ancient ritual. This belief, and approach, were retained by the director of the current production. It is a pity that an otherwise excellent production was marred by an approach which could have been so easily corrected with a little knowledge of more recent developments in the staging of ancient drama.

Greek tragedy was performed in the context of a religious festival, but that does not mean that it was itself a 'solemn religious ritual', any more than medieval morality plays were solemn and slow because they were performed on religious holidays. And it is a particularly egregious error to make the Oedipus a solemn, slow, deliberate play, when the protagonist's main flaw, besides his ignorance, is surely his speed and energy. Oedipus is a vigorous, active king. No matter what solution is suggested to him, he has already been there, tried that, sent already to inquire, and here's Kreon coming with the answer now; to make Oedipus slow and pompous is a gross misrepresentation of his character. With only a little modification of the pacing of the play, the rest of it could have been as gripping as the messenger speech, and much more in keeping with the actual lines. The misunderstanding of the nature of tragedy on which this approach to the play was based was corrected sixty years ago, well in time for the original production, let alone the 1997 remake. One hopes that the next time Stratford puts on an ancient play, someone involved in the production will at least have skimmed Taplin's Greek Tragedy in Action (U.C. Press, 1979).


Priest - Bernard Hopkins
Oedipus - Benedict Campbell
Creon - Roland Hewgill*
Tiresias - Douglas Rain*
Jocasta - Diane D'Aquila
Nurse - Suzanne Bennett
Man from Corinth - Lewis Gordon
Shepherd - William Needles*
Messenger - Keith Dinicol
Antigone - Barbara Fulton
Ismene - Cara Hunter
Chorus Leader - Stephen Russell

* = company members of the original 1954/55 Stratford Festival productions of Oedipus Rex

Laurel Bowman
University of Victoria