The Oedipal predicament: ‘It doesn’t have a plot’
Sam Shepard is going back to the source with his new take on Oedipus. Like his hero, does he know what he’s looking for?
Stephen Rea in Sam Shepard’s A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)
Sam Shepard and director Nancy Meckler during rehearsals for the play at The Playhouse in Derry. Photograph: Martin McKeown/Inpresspics
In a bright room in Derry, in the mid-afternoon, two men meet and immediately start speaking in riddles.
“Your idea of the miniature was good.”
“Yeah, I just don’t know how to get around the hugging thing.”
“Is it possible that Stephen could embrace the shadow, or no?”
“I can’t tell, because I’m not sure what the shadow is projecting on to.”
“A wall, hopefully.”
“Yeah, but if the shadow is 15ft high, what’s he hugging?”
“You have to make him as big.”
“It’s tough to get him as big as the shadow unless they’re the same size.”
“So we need a miniature Stephen.”
The first man is Sam Shepard, easily the most acclaimed American playwright of his generation (he turned 70 earlier this month). The second is Sean McArdle, who, as Shepard’s prop master for eight years, has been helping to solve some of the challenges of his theatre: an exploding ceiling fan in 2009’s Ages of the Moon, for instance, or a dead horse in 2008’s revival of Kicking a Dead Horse, both for the Abbey.
Here, the two men are considering the death scene of Jocasta, mother and wife to Oedipus, in Shepard’s fragmented new version of the myth, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), which is being premiered by Stephen Rea’s Derry-based company, Field Day. The conversation between the writer and the prop maker is no-nonsense and good-humoured, but, to the uninitiated, it makes even the riddle of the sphinx seem straightforward.
It also begs a similar question. If the morning of Shepard’s career was defined by experimentation, guided by the fracturing culture of 1960s America and his jagged imagination, then moved into a noon of naturalism, tragedy and exploded American myths, what did an evening return to one of the crutches of western theatre suggest? As Oedipus himself wonders, but realises too late, what is he looking for?
Shepard was first introduced to Oedipus Rex by his frequent collaborator, the late director Joseph Chaikin, in the early 1960s at New York’s Open Theatre, where Chaikin used the play’s “recognition scene” as a tool for developing actors. “I was too young and arrogant to even dip into it,” Shepard admits today. “I thought it was over my head, actually.”
Some years ago, he attempted a straight adaptation (“it’s just straightforward really,” he realised, “it’s about murder”) but he gave up on the idea when he felt there was nothing to add to Sophocles. At Rea’s invitation he returned to it, workshopping a fragmented version whose scenes dart through place and time, and that relies heavily on live music.
“That’s why he calls it Oedipus Variations,” says the show’s director, Nancy Meckler, also a longtime associate of Shepard’s. “It’s not a ‘well-made play’. Sometimes we’re seeing what might have been speeches from an antique text, other times modern characters whose lives seem to be touched strangely by the Oedipus story.”