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Monday, 20 July 2015

Oedipus Rex (review): Great theatre but not great storytelling

Gord Rand as Oedipus, with members of the cast (background).
Photo by David Hou
Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles
Translation by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay
Directed by Daniel Brooks
Designed by Camellia Koo (set), Victoria Wallace (costumes), Michael Walton (light), Alexander MacSween (sound composition), John Stead (fights)

Oedipus Rex is the kind of play one remembers vaguely from high school and from various pop-culture references to an "Oedipal complex". It is not Shakespearean tragedy, the kind where the hero has an epiphany before he inevitably dies in a state of grace, but the kind of tragedy where the audience knows the hero is doomed right from the beginning - a sort of slow, Schadenfreude march to a bitter and brutal end.  Not, what you'd call, a fun night of theatre.

Yet this play, this story, has survived over two thousand years for some reason; and director Daniel Brooks believes it is to show us the difference between what we believe about ourselves, and what is true. In this he mostly succeeds, largely with the help of a very fine translation that retains all of the pathos yet includes much wit.

(L-R) Gord Rand as Oedipus, Kevin Bundy as Messenger
and Nigel Bennett as Shepherd. Photo by David Hou  
Gord Rand plays Oedipus as a man who completely believes in his own self-worth. He is the king, he is a smart king, a good king, and he will not let anyone tell him otherwise. Events conspire to prove him otherwise, and Mr. Rand shows us what happens to a man mentally when stripped of this belief, this identity. That the stripping is physical as well as emotional will certainly cause discomfort in some audience members, but it is in no way gratuitous, serving to perfectly emphasize this theme. More discomfort is likely to come from the truly grotesque makeup of Oedipus' gouged eyes; they are unflinchingly realistic. Mr. Rand gives a raw, uncompromising performance that completely embraces this belief-truth dichotomy.

There is much to praise in this production but much that is puzzling. Hand-sanitizer and face-masks signify the plague that rocks the city, yet the townspeople (chorus) are permitted within the plastic screening that presumably isolates the palace, and these modern hygienic practises are at odds with the characters' belief that the plague has a divine cause. A blood-red clad priestess begins the play swinging a fog machine – the modern-day equivalent of purifying incense, one would presume – until real incense is brought out later and burned on stage. The inconsistency is jarring.

Deidre Gillard-Rowlings as Chorus Leader
with members of the cast (background).
Photo by David Hou
Something to praise is Nigel Bennett channelling Terence Stamp in drag as the blind seer Teiresias. Clever, because one of the myths surrounding this ancient Greek character was that he was transformed by Hera into a woman for some transgression or other (the ancient gods being quite fickle); this won't be well-known to most audiences but will make the curious go looking for a reason for the transvestite appearance. The production also has Teiresias using human echolocation to get around which makes for one eerie-assed and effective entrance.

Something to puzzle is the opportunism of the Shepherd, played by Kevin Bundy. Mr. Bundy plays him like a decent enough chap, eager to be of use to the King. That he actually helps put the final nail in the King's coffin is something to be pitied for the man - so why turn him into a petty thief, robbing victims of the plague? (Or were they simply citizens overcome with grief? It was hard to say.)

Gord Rand as Oedipus and Yanna McIntosh as Jocasta. Photo by David Hou
Something to praise is DeidreGillard-Rowlings as the impassioned Chorus leader; something that puzzles is the frequent use of microphones and shouting that actually reduces the power and meaning of these speeches. Something to praise is the ever-powerful Yanna McIntosh as Jocasta; something that puzzles is the Eastern European accent Lally Cadeau brings to the role of the Servant which is discordant to the rest of the play.

Christopher Morris as Kreon and Gord Rand as Oedipus,
with members of the cast (background). 
 Photo by David Hou
Something to definitely praise is Chris Morris playing Kreon. Mr. Morris is a forceful presence, playing the king's brother-in-law like a more patient Macbeth: also believing in his self-worth but willing to bide his time until the current King falls (or plummets) from grace. And when that happens, Mr. Morris turns the loyal, compassionate Kreon into a politician with edge, driving the cursed King/prince from the court in an almost savage way, forcing him to face the truth.

I believe this is a good production of a very fine translation, but the truth is, it could have been even greater.  Oedipus Rex continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 18th.






2 comments:

  1. "Something to puzzle is the opportunism of the Shepherd, played by Kevin Bundy. Mr. Bundy plays him like a decent enough chap, eager to be of use to the King. That he actually helps put the final nail in the King's coffin is something to be pitied for the man - so why turn him into a petty thief, robbing victims of the plague? (Or were they simply citizens overcome with grief? It was hard to say.)"
    I think what we see is motivated interchange btw this messenger and Oedipus when O says he will reward good news and the messenger replies that is why he's there, ie. to get a reward. Some translations have this as "thanks" not as "reward" but the upshot is that the messenger can be seen as someone who is behaving out of self interest and is acquisitive. Other characters are motivated by (or are accused of) honour, piety, loyalty and so on.
    I agree that it is odd and I didn't like it, but I can imagine it arising from process of character analysis that is part of rehearsing a play. It is a mis-reading, I think, of Sophocles' text though, as the different tone this messenger exhibits merely sets up the huge reveal that's coming up

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  2. Thank-you for sharing your insight, I should have realized it might have something to do with the translation. ~RG

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