The Phoenician Women
Euripides, translated by Philip Vellacott
This straightforward production by George Eugeniou makes one wonder why this play is so seldom done; it is such a clear piece of story telling. It covers the same ground as Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes: the conflict between Oedipus' sons Polynices and Eteocles for the throne of Thebes in which they kill each other. The two versions have significant differences: typically Euripides is much more concerned with personal relationships.
It is very much a family affair for only the messengers and the seer Tiresias have no obvious blood tie; even the chorus, the Phoenician women, who happen to be in Thebes on their way to Apollo's oracle at Delphi, share their ancestry.
Not following that oracle's advice is at the root of the story. Laios, King of Thebes, was warned that he should never father a son or that child would bring about his death. As his widowed Queen Jocasta explains at the beginning of this play, he ignored that in his love-making and she bore him a son. Laios skewered the boy's feet (giving him the name Oedipus or swollen foot) and exposed him on a hillside, where he was found by herdsmen who took him to Corinth. There the Queen reared him as her own. Oedipus, solving the riddle of the Sphinx, saved Thebes from plague and in return was given the crown and Jocasta as his bride, and so unknowingly married his mother, fathering four children on her. When this comes out later he blinds himself and curses his sons. Now, that curse is coming to fruition.
Jocasta, given a strong and measured performance by Jackie Scarvellis, has not hung herself, as in Aeschylu' Oedipus Tyrannus, but is central to this version, trying to make peace between her sons. There is an angry, passionate Polynices but the actor never gives himself time to think so that, whether due to his North American phrasing or a tendency to split text arbitrarily into short phrases as though reading from auto cue, he often puts emphasis on the wrong word. Alek Hayes' Eteocles takes things more gently so that his words come from his brain not just his mouth while Ryan Shaw, in his brief appearance as Menoeceus, the son of Creon who offers himself as a sacrifice to save the city, also homes in on the sense of what he is saying .
Blind seer Tiresias, who says that sacrifice is necessary, is a wheezing but charismatic Genco Ashizawa, his blind eyes full of concentration as he goes into a trance, his broken phrases logical, for the words are not his own.
Messengers play an important role in classical Greek drama, reporting events that cannot be shown. The first, describing the conflict between the brothers to the mother is disastrously all self-indulgent bravura, rushing all over the place stutteringly emphasising conjunctions at the expense of the information he is conveying and largely ignoring the Queen to whom he is speaking .It would have helped had she been downstage, her back to the audience, rather than behind him and this too might have avoided her turning to beat the wall behind her as though she were in a bad Greek National Theatre production of half a century ago. Ciaran Murtagh's second messenger avoids all that and gives it straight with much greater dramatic effect.
One could wish that Engeniou had kept some of his actors on a tighter reign but he makes sure we get the story and the anguish of this cursed family. His four-woman chorus is handled without overloading them with choreography but with a hint of ritual.
Vana Yiannoula's costumes go for modern boots and trousers overlaid with period garments, much in the way that the Elizabethan theatre suggested other periods, without suggesting any particular time, though Jocasta's robe and headdress are firmly rooted in traditional ideas of the classical. Set designer Bryan Woltjen has decorated the walls of the theatre in monochrome to look like panels of bas-relief, most consisting of huge eyes that could be the watching gods - though this is one play in the classical canon where gods seem absent and no deus ex machina is flown in to solve human problems.
This is the second in a sequence of five productions which will present the story of Oedipus as retold by ancient Greek dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The remaining three will follow in 2011.
Runs until 27th June 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton