Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus’ is probably the oldest text in the world which still retains the power to shock, excite and move us in a thoroughly modern way. Across 2400 years it speaks to us of helplessness before events, of come-uppance and the essential unfairness and arbitrariness of life.
This version by Lazarus Theatre Company is billed as ‘After Sophocles’. No translator is credited with the English text; which is a shame; if the cast and director Ricky Dukes don’t read Ancient Greek, the intermediary should be acknowledged. He or she has provided words that capture the mythic power and dignity of the characters without ever being stilted or portentous. The translation moves flexibly to encompass quatrains for the chorus, prose for the soldiers and high blank verse for the greatest moments. It is also capable of a bare simplicity, which in the right mouths (as here, in Robin Holden’s Oedipus and Samantha Andersen’s Jocasta) has a heartbreaking force: “No man can be happy until he dies”; “I do not know who I am.”
The plot is almost too well known to be repeated: the city of Thebes cursed for harbouring a murderer, King Oedipus’ determination to find who it is, and the slow juggernaut that inexorably encroaches to lay the murder, and incest with his mother, at his door. (Among the play’s many virtues, it is the world’s first whodunit.) When he blinds himself and begs to be banished, he enters the realm of sacred, sacrificial kings, which stretched back thousands of years even before the Greeks, and is echoed palely in the figure of Jesus.
Ricky Duke has chopped the text up, keeping most characters onstage most of the time, but this is entirely to the positive, making it more accessible, more watchable, and clarifying its themes. At the start, the air is thick with dry ice; the ruins and rubbish we glimpse hint at the destruction of war and plague. Choric singing is heard, but we see no-one in the haze, until Oedipus bursts in triumphant with his troops, all in contemporary battledress, bloated and gloating with victory. (Most of the women are dressed as nurses, the opposite side of the militaristic equation.) This is a gung-ho society, braggart and overconfident, into which the poison of doubt and guilt will be slowly dripped. Starting so high and strong, Oedipus’s tragic downfall is the more painful; it makes his journey to self-knowledge both longer and more extreme. From an arrogant assumption that the Gods ride by his side into battle, he comes to realise that they are unknowable, probably indifferent, and possibly malevolent.
Duke imposes a semi-Christian veneer on this. The opening chorus, “God help us all, God save us all, God shield us all” is sung to what sounds like High Anglican cadences, and characters later cross themselves. This is a mismatch with text, and a bit mimsy. One could have wished for something more elemental. This is provided abundantly by Holden’s Oedipus, in a performance of ferocious concentration and great clarity. His realisation that he has brought this on himself – “Is there no-one I have not offended” – seems to rip him apart. He is matched by his Jocasta, although her costume of what looks like an M & S slip does her no favours.
Although Duke has freed up much of the text, it still depends on long narration of off-stage events, notably by Tiresias, and the Messenger/Shepherd who finally reveals the truth. Here performances are less successful, lacking that narrative arc which both gives sense to events and creates their climax.
In some productions the appearance of the blind Oedipus at the end provokes fits of giggles, with Oedipus looking like a giant panda after a night on the tiles. Here you could have heard a pin drop, and that was a measure of the distance the King had travelled, dragging us every inch of the way with him. Emotionally draining and truly cathartic, Lazarus have a fine version of a classic on their hands.