Abbey Theatre, Dublin
The fate of Oedipus ought to be blindingly obvious. That's as true for the protagonist of Sophocles' classic, a ruler determined to discover the culprit behind the crime that has cursed his city and looks everywhere but at himself, as it is for his observers: his family, his citizens and, for close to 2,500 years now, his audience. The riddle of Oedipus – here a dress-down king in a new production of quite daring simplicity from director Wayne Jordan – is not so much how he unwittingly became the incestuous killer he seeks, but how anybody can ignore it.
Jordan’s own limpid new version of the play, which announces a debt to WB Yeats from the opening, cataclysmic words – “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” – is a solemnly rendered and starkly beautiful retelling of societal collapse, whose emphasis on the chorus attempts to share some responsibility.
With little on stage but an ensemble of 19 people and an encircling wilderness of wooden chairs, Ciaran O’Melia’s design conjures up the city as a sundered and shifting space. These chairs could belong to a church or a council meeting, a telling collision in this drama between personal struggles and preordained fate.
The more startling addition, though, is composer Tom Lane’s arresting choral work, giving the 12-strong chorus a striking musical commentary on the action that forcibly recalls devotional hymns. The difference lies in the expression of doubting voices among a bereft choir: “For death is all the fashion now,” they sing. “And everywhere the people say god is dead.”
The tussle between fatalism and free will is clearly sounded, whether it’s Mark Huberman’s defensive Creon eschewing responsibility (“I already live like a king, but I sleep at night”), or Fiona Bell’s evasive Jocasta shunning the gods: “There is no such thing as prophecy.” Barry John O’Connor’s Oedipus, who subtly matches a regal gait to a dragging limp, traces the humanity within his flawed hero, and like his performance the clarity of Jordan’s production seems intent on discovering emotional resonance. The question is whether the play still can, in Aristotle’s words, arouse pity and fear among an over-familiar audience.
Perhaps that’s why Jordan seems less fascinated with Oedipus’s slow discovery than in how he is then hastily deserted. In a play that is all about seeing, it moves the focus away from the individual hero towards the actions of the people, and at one point a blanket glare from Sinead Wallace’s lights puts us squarely in their position: to trust our fate to the hands of gods, or decision of leaders, makes us all wilfully blind to the truth.
Ends Oct 31