The Oedipus Project
Sophocles: translated by Bryan Doerries
Theatre of War Productions
Theatre of War Productions has since 2009 produced a series of more than 20 readings, mainly of classical dramas, that have been immediately followed by public discussions on linked topics ranging from the wounds of war, mental health, addiction, refugees, race and social justice to sexual assault and law enforcement.
They have included performances in schools and colleges, for the military and in prisons and have gained the participation of leading US actors. In May and June this year, they went online, streaming a reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, its background of plague facilitating an online discussion of the present pandemic and the response to it. This UK version, with a cast of leading British performers under the direction of the company’s co-founder Bryan Doerries coming together on Zoom, was mounted for a one-off performance.
Doerries assembled a strong cast with Damian Lewis a powerful Oedipus, Kathryn Hunter making a brief appearance in the opening scene as a priest, Lesley Sharp a fraught Jocasta desperately trying to distract people (and especially her he royal husband) from finding out the truth she has already recognised and Jason Isaacs as Jocasta’s brother Creon. Nyasha Hatendi represented the whole chorus of elders, speaking with great effect, and Brian F O’Byrne and Nick Holder were the Theban and Corinthian shepherds whose evidence reveals all.
There was no attempt to impose a concept or to add dramatic effect through manipulation of the individual images, apart from moving between single camera and shared screen. We have seen much more sophisticated use of this technology in recent months but this relied entirely on the actors and, performing in isolation, style was not always consistent.
Classical Greek tragedy almost always takes place in public, as here when the play opens and Oedipus speaks with Thebes’ elders and, in addressing them, Lewis’s king suggests that space with a projection that contrasts with the more intimate way in which Hatendi plays to camera but both ways match character and it paves the way for the passion that is needed from the stricken Oedipus, demands that were well met.
The blind seer Tiresias was made female, perhaps a last minute cast change rather than meaningful casting, an unnamed American-voiced actress behind dark glasses replacing an announced actor who did not take part. Sadly it didn’t work, lacking the authority others brought to their roles or the immediacy with which, for instance, O’Byrne suggests his pain as he writhes at the hands of unseen torturers.
A straightforward production which, to judge by comments made in the international exchange which followed, proved especially effective among students who had not previously seen it performed.
As Doerries pointed out in his introduction to the post-show discussion, Sophocles wrote the play after Athens had suffered an outbreak of plague and its production was followed by another wave. They killed a third of the population. But how relevant is Sophocles’ tragedy to COVID-19? Fortunately, none of those contributing to the discussion blamed an ancient curse for coronavirus or that it was divine judgement for our lifestyle as some did when we faced AIDS back in the 1980s. In fact, apart from some opening remarks from lead speakers, who included a nurse working in a US hospital, most of the comments were about the play rather than the pandemic.
In the play, Oedipus’ actions (even if god-driven) bring plague to Thebes and he then fails to help his people. In the discussion, the responsibility of national leadership was hinted at but the record of Trump, Johnson and other politicians was not examined. On this occasion, Theatre of War Productions, despite the quality of the performance, failed to provoke deep discussion or reflect the outrage at mismanagement that we have seen elsewhere. We got a taste of performances that it would be great to see on stage, but what followed was tame by comparison with feelings widely expressed elsewhere.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton