Tuesday 12 December 2017

Review: Oedipus at the Abbey Theatre

Barry John O'Connor
Barry John O'Connor

Poor Oedipus was an unfortunate fellow, wasn't he?

Technically, it wasn't the bloke's fault that he (spoiler alert) married his ma. Director Wayne Jordan argues that Sophocles' play is so much more than a drama about incest or sexual perversion. Instead, says Jordan, it's a drama about leadership. He has a point.

Jordan's "new version" of Oedipus strips the play of its trademark gowns and sandals. There is but one crown on that stage. This is still a Greek tragedy, but it's also a curious exercise in contemporary theatre.

There are rows upon rows of wooden chairs, at the centre of which rests a large table. The actors wear shirts, jumpers and jeans. The lighting design is fit for a U2 concert.

But Jordan's Oedipus rests most of its weight on the text, simplifying and modernising the original story, and presenting an altogether more digestible manifestation of a tale in which a troubled king attempts to cure his city of plague but winds up uncovering the, erm, mother of all family secrets.


We all know how it ends, but when Barry John O'Connor's Oedipus crawls out from behind a door, black blood oozing down his torso…well, it's a bit of a shocker. 'The Prophecy' said young Oedipus would murder his auld fella, claim the throne and have children with his old dear.

He did everything in his power to avoid this conundrum, but hey, these things happen, and the journey to discovery is certainly intriguing.

Jordan's intense production, however, is far from perfect. The first third is weighed down in politics and choral singing. Crikey, the choral singing. Composer Tom Lane's efforts are limp, at best.

A 13-member chorus puts the work in, and there are some fine actors on that stage (Damian Kearney and Hilda Fay included), but the musical parts are a little distracting, and a tad flat. It takes a "stranger" (an amusing Ronan Leahy) to inject some much-needed comic relief.

Structurally, then, this new Oedipus is a little wobbly. Again, it's a good thing that the language is accessible and that the leading players (a solid Fiona Bell as Jocasta and a hot-tempered Peter Gowen as Tiresias) get the job done. It's O'Connor's aggressive and authoritative turn as the eponymous king that really holds things together.

A fascinating experiment, Oedipus 2.0 sometimes feels like a work-in-progress. Nonetheless, it's a testament to Jordan's peculiar, classroom-like adaptation that, even when dealing with material over 2,000 years old, he manages to add a new sense of mystery and suspense to proceedings. That, in itself, is a massive achievement.

Running until Oct 31



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