Wayne Jordan’s new version of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King takes place on a stage bare but for assorted wooden chairs, a table holding a jug of water and a glass, and Oedipus’ wooden crown. The eponymous king, who solved the riddle of the Sphinx and claimed the throne of Thebes, is now called upon by his distressed subjects to lift the curse under which the town now finds itself placed. Prophecy dictates that this can only be done by finding and killing in turn the man who murdered the town’s previous ruler, Laius. So Oedipus resolves to investigate the murder, but finds himself implicated by the revelation of various other prophecies from the seer Tiresius, those recalled from Oedipus’ own past, and that of his wife Jocasta, formerly the wife of Laius.
The story of Oedipus the King is familiar to many, in part due to Sigmund Freud’s use of a reading of the play to demonstrate his theory of the unconscious and the Oedipal complex, and so Jordan’s focus lies not in heightening the suspense of its unraveling plot, but rather in the emotional experiences of its characters — resistance, in particular — as they face the inevitable. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the re-staging is Tom Lane’s score, which sees the chorus (the citizens of Thebes) punctuate the dialogic narrative with extraordinary and intermittently exhilarating harmonies. Otherwise, the actors all wear casual, contemporary clothes, suggesting a dramatic space that is not specific, but rather archetypal: the stuff of the unconscious.
Jordan’s Oedipus lends itself to conceptual readings like Freud’s (loosely: prophecy taking the place of unconscious impulses, the stage/off-stage standing in for the conscious/unconscious) or Lacan’s (the central tension of the play is not Freud’s impulsive reading, but rather that between what is known and what is unknown) and less to the purely dramatic. It is in the play’s more visceral moments — Oedipus physically grappling with brother-in-law Creon, or the scene of Oedipus’ eventual exile from Thebes in which emotive capacities and time alike are overextended — that things fall flat for the actors, in sharp contrast to the chorus’ impressive ability to sustain the most heightened of emotions in song.
Jordan’s use of simplistic language adds vitality without sacrificing nuance, though his addition of lines from W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ to the chorus jars somewhat, contributing to an extant sense of the ominous, but little else. Barry John O’Connor’s Oedipus is hubristic and volatile, but retains a certain sympathetic vulnerability, perfectly matching the central ambivalence of the text. Ronan Leahy’s stranger from Corinth, however, is the stand-out performance, arriving late on as a catalyst to the final, tragic revelation, a presence at once malevolent and obsequious, as though emerged, quite appropriately, from some place of deep, internal pain.
Overall, this production grasps beautifully a sense of Oedipus’ torment being of a psychical as well as material sort. Its sparse stage invites a psychological reading while retaining an immediacy that reaches its zenith in the urgent, direct address of its chorus in the play’s finale. A wall of light behind the stage dazzles and blinds as they remind us of man’s fallibility, mortality and perhaps inevitable unhappiness. Life persists, however, in spite of same. A thoughtful and accomplished version of an immortal, fascinating play.
Oedipus The King is at The Abbey Theatre from Thursday 24th September to Saturday 31st October 2015
Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall