Blinded by the lights
Billed as it was as “bold, dark and terrifying”, I attended Flo Vincent and Amy Higgins’ new adaptation of this Grecian tragedy with great anticipation. Oedipus Rex is a classical story of horrifying proportions: a headstrong young king sets out to solve a murder and in so doing identifies himself as the murderer, the murdered man as his own father and his new wife as his biological mother. Originally written by Sophocles as a warning against mortals trying to alter fate, the plot is intricately built around the words of oracles and by a chorus who bind these warnings together.
The set was simple and striking, comprising minimal set pieces which unfortunately included a full length mirror facing the audience. Combined with often bright lights from the front of house, this set piece was a marked demonstration of complete lack of thought in the set design, as it served to blind audience members on a regular basis. I left the theatre with a crashing headache.
This niggle aside, performance decisions were at times smart and creative, particularly regarding the use of the chorus. Much energy and thought had clearly gone into this aspect of the production. A series of eight actors, dressed head-to-toe in black, undulated and crawled, writhed and stormed their way through the choral warnings to the doomed King. Alternating between moving as one body, to representing individuals, this chorus was undoubtedly the best aspect of the production and often rescued the performance from the effects of other, less successful elements.
The language of this classical text is challenging and one of the key responsibilities of the actor-director partnership must always be to make sense of it, together, early on in the rehearsal process. Sadly, I felt that this was not achieved to a good enough extent and the audience enjoyment suffered as a result. In particular, Joseph Terry (Oedipus) struggled bravely through at least an hour of thick, often mumbled speech before really warming up to his performance. Early on, Terry used gesture to try and colour his delivery but these added little meaning and tended towards the mechanical. As such a young performer, I suspect that Terry had little experience to draw on to inform a role of this gravity and magnitude. As he spends more time on the stage in Durham I don’t doubt that he will become a less self-conscious, more sensitive actor.
In contrast, the King’s brother-in-law Creon (Charlie Warner) seemed much more at ease on the stage and took command of his scenes deftly, with a fairly sophisticated sense of entitlement. Although I think Warner was a little slack in really drawing everything out of his character and pushing himself as far as he could have, his comfort with the language was decent and came as a great relief. Serena Gosden-Hood (Jocasta) was also reasonably comfortable, although struggled to develop much of a character for her role. Whilst delivered very prettily, I found myself frustrated that I couldn’t sense any humanity or depth in Jocasta, a character I really wanted to sympathise with. The highlight among the four named characters came in the shape of Dom Riley as the blind seer Tiresias. Commanding the stage admirably, Riley presented a physical, exciting, slightly mad interpretation of the role. Coloured contact lenses painted his eyes white and he reeled and felt his way around the stage, claiming the space as his own and thoroughly stealing the scene. My only regret here was that his single scene was so short – I look forward to seeing more from this first year.
My overall disappointment with this production stemmed from how much of the story of Oedipus was hindered or lost from the lack of understanding shown for its language and story. Whilst the directors demonstrated their strong, creative ideas for the show – observable in their clear set and costume decisions and their work with the chorus – they unfortunately missed out on exploiting all of the potential in this amazing play.