Thebes

Gareth Jandrell
The Faction Theatre Company
New Diorama Theatre

Ensemble with (right) Dervall Mellett as Antigone Credit: The Faction
Ensemble with Kate Sawyer as Jocasta and Lachlan McCall as Oedipus Credit: The Faction
Ensemble with (foreground) Andrew Chevalier as Polynices, Dervall Mellett as Antigone and Lachlan McCall as Oedipus Credit: The Faction
Alexander Guiney as Eteocles, Andrew Chevalier as Polynices and Cary Crankson as Creon Credit: The Faction

This is a re-telling of the story of the royal house of Thebes from the time of plague which begins Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos until after the death of his daughter Antigone.

Although it draws on Sophocles' Oedipus and Antigone and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, even closely paralleling some of their speeches, it is a new play rather than a translation or straight adaptation for it not only telescopes the three into a single continuous drama but, where the ancient plays explore predestined fates and men and women following the dictates of the gods, Jandrell places more emphasis on ambition and political control.

However, though Jandrell’s Queen Jocasta declares that, “oracles talk but the darkest shit,” this is still a tragedy in which the oracles pronouncements about the baby Oedipus have shaped his destiny.

Jandrell often writes in short, stabbing statements and uses some very idiosyncratic phraseology but, as this company delivers it, the sense comes over. Sometimes the hard walls against which they play give an acoustic that blurs clarity, though this can add to the effect when the ensemble speak simultaneously or overlapping to create the unruly sounds of protest, panic and social unrest, with wailings and animal noises as well as speech or when they provide a human-created soundtrack of clicks and mutterings behind some sequences.

This Oedipus may have saved the city from the Sphynx but he doesn’t seem to be quite the loved hero. There is more than a hint that he tends to the tyrant in the modern sense rather than just as ruler; there is fear among his people—of him as well as of the plague—and there is revolution in the air.

Lachlan McCall’s Oedipus exerts authority but he doesn’t have charisma. His public pronouncements aren’t live thoughts but sound almost by rote, unlike his emotion-fuelled speech in private or when he is angry.

Kate Sawyer plays Jocasta, the queen Oedipus marries without realising that she is his mother. She has a moment when I wondered whether she had long realised who Oedipus was but the sincerity with which she describes how her baby boy was left out on a hillside to die makes that impossible, and the revelations of Damian Lynch’s Herdsman that follow are made even more disturbing.

Oedipus’s brother-in-law Creon may show a modest façade but there are hints that he is a power-hungry plotter from the start. Cary Crankson performance gradually reveals his growing grasp of power. While the sudden suicide of Jocasta and Oedipus’s on-stage self-blinding arouse compassion, there is little felt for this man even as he sees the bodies of his family before him.

Director Rachel Valentine Smith keeps her cast on stage throughout, using them not only like an ancient chorus (though delivering a pattern of single lines rather than speaking in unison) but in stylized movement that sets the scene and creates the battle for Thebes when Oedipus's sons face each other.

The brothers: Eteocles (Alexander Guiney, manipulated by Creon), and Polynices (Andrew Chevalier) kill each other in single combat and it is Creon’s decision to leave Polynices unburied that is the motivation for Antigone’s defiance, forcefully played by Dervall Mellett.

Before that, however, Jandrell inserts a scene where this gutsy girl (travelling with her father as in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus) caustically handles a marriage proposal from Creon’s youngest son Haemon, nicely played by Tom Radford.

Later, the way in which Haemon’s death is staged is an example of the thought which has gone into this production for the weapon with which he kills himself has already served as the staff with which his blinded father has supported himself—this is a story in which everything seems to be linked.

The scene in which a soldier who has been on guard reports the attempted burial of Polynices is one of the rare comic episodes in classical tragedy. Jandrell echoes it here and Christopher Hughes plays it beautifully. Johnny McPherson also shows how worthwhile small parts can be in his pristine playing of a messenger.

Once again The Faction demonstrates the strength of their ensemble playing. It is not a company of entirely equal talents but they all have their individual moments and this compacted version of the calamitous story of the House of Laius is a powerful presentation well worth catching—not least for the best performance of sightlessness I can remember from Mark Leipacher as the seer Tiresias.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton