Oedipus

Sophocles, adapted by David Stuttard
Actors of Dionysus
Ustinov Studio, Bath, and touring
(2006)

Publicity photo

The problem facing any writer attempting to re-work a classical masterpiece (particularly one with poetry and integrity of the magnitude of Sophocles), is that you inevitably set yourself up to be compared. It is an exercise that is surely only worthwhile if you are certain that you can improve either the clarity of the story-line, or that you can treat the script to a first-rate modernisation.

Despite assurances on the Actors of Dinoysus' press release that Stuttard has done exactly that, in fact he seems to have sacrificed an exploration of the themes in favour of an 'accessible' plot, and his 'modernisation' goes as far as distancing itself from a full-on classical setting, whilst leaving any actual period hard to detect. Moreover, the script is often clumsy and laboured. Heavy-handed exposition, (Creon feels the need to labour his point home, " your predecessor, Laius"; to which Oedipus banally replies, "Creon, I know who Laius is") and clichéd dialogue, ("Correct me if I'm wrong"), give the actors very little of substance to work with, and the rare moments of poetry are swamped in a work that has lost much of the beauty and finesse of the original.

Nevertheless, in the hands of a strong cast, the central themes of the plot should shine through. Its essence is an ageless story that should shock to the core, no matter how long ago it was first penned. The agony of Jocasta, the torment and mental collapse of Oedipus ought to stand alone, regardless of whether it is given its original context or not. It is a love story with a powerful kick and ought to leave its audience winded.

This production achieves none of these things. Director Tamsin Shasha appears to have devoted a great deal of rehearsal time to the logistics of choreographing the pieces of pointless and placeless set, designed by Fran Kazamia, at the expense of having her actors build the believable characters and grounded relationships, that would have had the desired impact upon the audience.

Ben Ingles' Oedipus has moments where his growing torments appear to have something approaching integrity, but these are never sustained and are frequently overshadowed by poor delivery and an over-dependence upon the raised voice.

Raewyn Lippert's Jocasta is emotionally stunted, leaving us wanting a great deal more to convince us that she feels any anguish at all over the loss of her baby. She nests upon her lines, listening to the sound of her voice, rather than inhabiting the world of the play. Her additional roles rely heavily upon an 'in-your-face' physicality, which she seems content to pass off in place of any real character work.

The other characters, Terence Frisch as Creon and Simon Spencer-Hyde as Teiresias, are just as two-dimensional as Jocasta. Add to that the poor ensemble work from the chorus, some hackneyed 'blind' acting and a lack of sense of place, that leaves the production floundering in time somewhere between Classical Greece (thanks to the religious iconography hanging on the back of the stage) and the modern day (Oedipus' wrist watch), and the production soon comes to feel as weary I did. The over-egged, symbolist use of the set is an irritating distraction: no amount of 'clever' manipulation of circular bits of table (which entrap Oedipus at crucial moments) can be a substitute for intuitive acting.

The net effect was something akin to Eastenders' angry-acting meets Dr Who design.

Spencer-Hyde's brief appearance as the Corinthian messenger offered perhaps the only credible emotional connection of the night, as he squirmed uncomfortably in the face of Oedipus' rough treatment of his wife.

But by the final scene, I had slumped so low in my seat that my view was entirely obscured by the shoulders of the couple in front, and I really didn't care.

"Oedipus" goes on national tour until early December.

Reviewer: Allison Vale