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The Comedy of Oedipus

Ali Salem
El-Alfy Theatre Company
Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Elliott J Pritchard as Oedipus and Joie Risk (Chorus) Credit: Jamie Scott
Harry Belcher as Awalih, Timothy George as Onah and Buchan Lennon as Tiresias Credit: Jamie Scott
Jack Badley as Police Officer and Harry Belcher as Awalih Credit: Jamie Scott
Caroline Ginty as Jocasta and Elliott Pritchard as Oedipus Credit: Jamie Scott
Amy Leighton as Kami and Manos Koutsis as Senefru Credit: Jamie Scott
Harry Belcher as Aalih, Tom Phillips as Creon, Jack Badley, Joie Risk, Amy Leighton and Natasha Karp as Chorus and Elliott Pritchard as Oedipus Credit: Jamie Scott

Forget Sophocles and his Theban plays. Ali Salim may use some elements of the ancient Greek story but he transports it across the Mediterranean and a long way up the Nile to Egyptian Thebes, the city of Amun-Ra. His Oedipus is already there when the Sphinx monster turns up devouring people who can’t solve his riddles.

The obvious would–be heroes and the university’s Professor Ptah have been gobbled up. The Town Council, with Awalih, the chief of police, and Creon, who is head of security, are looking for the next candidate to send to face the Sphinx. It is clever-clogs Oedipus who volunteers, but on his own conditions: Thebes and its Queen are his price if he succeeds.

Of course, our lad knows the answer to the riddle; he’s a genius. Married to Queen Jocasta and in his palace, he sets about improving his people’s lives with his inventions. He’s putting Thebes 5000 years ahead with television and telephones. Back in his laboratory he’s working on an atomic bomb, but he doesn’t manage those basic things that ruin their lives and soon the Sphinx, or another like it, is back and there’s contagion spreading through the city.

The story is introduced by blind seer Tiresias, a mouth-organ-playing Scot in dark glasses as Buchan Lennon plays him, already in chinos when everyone else is in pharaonic kilts and shifts before their “modernisation”.

Jenny Gamble’s set design and Libby Everall’s costumes mix ancient and modern in a way that’s sometimes witty but Ahmed El-Afly’s direction mixes blatant mugging with confident characterisation not quite as smoothly in its parodic presentation of government and business.

There is a podgily camp High Priest in Adrian Ralph’s Hormoheb in contrast to Tom Phillips upright but wily Creon. Caroline Ginty is a no-nonsense Jocasta, confident enough to overcome some awkward entrances, and Elliott Pritchard gives Oedipus a fresh innocence—he may be clever but needs to wise up to self-interested officials and corruption.

Harry Belcher as smiling, torturing, bully Police Chief Awalih, who gets things absolutely right and bridges styles, charms the audience with his apparent blunt openness when he’s not putting the boot in. It is a sustained and nicely judged performance that shows up the occasional school play over-reaction from one or two of the cast.

When first produced in 1970, the play was obviously about contemporary Egypt. Audiences could identify this Oedipus with aspects of President Gumal Nasser, but its satire is just as relevant to Egypt today or any country going through regime change or revolution. It is a warning against the way in which power corrupts, following expedient policies instead of what you promised, so-called socialism accommodating rampant capitalism, accepting a culture of tax avoidance or retaining the apparatus of the police state.

“You are the one that killed the beast” Salim subtitled his play. In 1970, the Beast might have been seen as external threats but its contagion is in the loss of self-belief and self-sufficiency. As Oedipus left Thebes and Creon took control, I was unsure what this production was trying to say in its smudged ending. In most of the play Salim’s intentions are so clear, though I cannot help wondering how his views on the “invention” of religion go down with contemporary Arab audiences, however much they may agree with his objection to the deification of political leaders.

The Comedy of Oedipus is part of the 2013 Shubbak Festival of Arab Culture which continues with performances and events across London until 6 July.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton