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Blinded by the lights

Posted on 5th May 2010. 19 Comments

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Oedipus Rex, DotDotDot Productions, 4th – 6th March 2010

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.

Bobbi Nicholson

19 Comments »

  • Sue de Nime said:

    Since the above is clearly an opinion piece it feels appropriate to respond in kind:

    The writing is second-rate and unimaginative with no syntactical flare and a complete dearth of substantiation for what is, as previously suggested, a somewhat vitriolic opinion piece. The reviewer appears to be trying to give the impression of herself as a world-weary theatre expert, a shoe that doesn’t tend to fit well at the best of times and, in this scenario, is simply gratuitous. I also understand that this is the person who directed Equus? Without wishing to be unkind to an actor who I thought had a certain amount of potential, if we want to talk about mumbling from a main character then don’t even get me started on the submerged and soporific delivery of the psychiatrist in that production.
    The critique of Tiresias and Creon happens, again in my opinion, to be reasonably fair, but the reviewer completely misses the opportunity to talk about why their chosen renditions of these characters might actually have served to add an increased degree of intricacy to the already complex tapestry of plot, motive and dialogue.
    The analysis of Jocasta also appears somewhat facile. It’s easy (and it may indeed be fair in this case!) to dismiss a character as lacking depth and humanity but it is infinitely harder to fulfill the next necessary aspect of a review and stipulate why? A combination of the two is both justified and useful. The former without the latter, it not.
    As for the criticism of set-design there really isn’t much of a response one can make to a director who borrowed their set design for Equus, almost down to the detail, from the West End production with Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliff.
    Unlike the reviewer I don’t actually enjoy being unkind about people’s hard work just because I have a forum in which to do so but, since that appears to be the order of the day, I will only add that writing like this is a both a symptom and example of everything that is anti-intellectual about university journalism. I don’t know if it is my job to call someone out on slapdash opinion writing of this variety, but it is certainly somebody’s job!

  • Donnchadh said:

    Sue,
    I wasn’t able to see Oedipus Rex, so I can’t really comment on either the production or Bobbi’s review of it, but I wonder why you felt the need to refer to her own directorial work in taking issue with her review. Even if what you say about Equus was true, it’s hardly relevant to her criticisms of this production. For example, the set Flo and Amy chose either worked in the context of this production or it did not; the success (or provenance) of a set that Bobbi chose for a different production is entirely beside the point. I don’t think reviewers on D21 should be afraid of a little negative feedback, but surely they can legitimately expect to be criticised only for what they’ve written, and not for anything else they’ve done here.

  • Sue de Nime said:

    To Donnchadh:

    That may be a fair criticism. On the other hand it is hard to avoid objecting to the rather superior tone taken by the reviewer in this scenario when you happen to know that she herself has made precisely the same errors as the ones that she has chosen to criticize. Since I am calling into question the entire underlying attitude of the reviewer, which is, necessary, a personal thing, the context seems somewhat relevant. Portions of the review appear indicative of an pervasive belief that the person writing it would be capable of better directorial choices. That being the case, you could argue that my references are reasonable.
    If you prefer, however, then please feel free to disregard my two allusions to the production of Equus. As to the rest of my commentary, I continue to stand by it. To write a bad review is a reviewers prerogative. But to write an unsubstantiated and largely opinion dependent bad review, is gratuitous.

  • Donnchadh said:

    Sue,
    I don’t know – if you had thought Equus was the best thing since sliced bread, would you have responded to the above review with ‘Oh, well, at least she knows what she’s talking about’? Surely if the review is flawed in the ways you suggest, it could not be justified by the author’s abilities as a director, no matter how great they were? If that’s the case, then it would seem better to omit any mention of them whatsoever.
    And I must say, I didn’t pick up the superior tone you allude to. There’s quite a bit of ‘could do better’ in this review, but it’s a little unfair to assume that means ‘I could have done it better’. But that’s presumably a matter of personal opinion.

  • Sue de Nime said:

    Again, I take your point. The only problem in this instance is that hypocrisy makes me fraught and two of the elements that this reviewer chose to strenuously object to happened to have been major issues in her own recent production. Perhaps this is what caused me to detect a note of superiority, since it smacked of someone who is very able to hold a mirror up to the errors of others while remaining unable to turn it around upon themselves. But perhaps I am overreaching. It wouldn’t be the first time.
    All that being said, my main objection is to the style and execution of the review itself. It functions largely as an unsubstantiated opinion piece that objects to many aspects of the production without fully elucidating why. It also shows a rather woeful lack of in-depth knowledge of either the play itself, or the plays of Sophocles in general, which is particularly problematic in the case of ‘Oedipus at Collonus’ and ‘Antigone’, since these feature some of the characters present in ‘Oedipus Rex’. Both the compliments and censure are full of useless vagaries, such as the description of Creon’s “sense of entitlement” or his failure to really draw “everything out of his character”. It is as unhelpful and irresponsible on the part of a reviewer to laud certain character nuances, without articulating why, as it is to complain of a lack of depth without delving into what they perceive that absent depth to be. By all means criticize where you feeling criticism is due, but you owe the performers the courtesy of explaining your perspective fully and of having a clear understanding of the depth and diversity of both the play itself and the characters in it.
    This review was on-the-surface, knee-jerk censure that served no purpose and illuminated nothing either useful or original.
    At the risk of sycophancy, if the person who wrote this wants a better example of what a review should be then I would direct them to your analysis of the production of Equus, which is fully researched, elegantly expressed and consistently substantiated.

  • Tom said:

    Fair review (the commissioned review that is)

  • Anjali said:

    I’m sorry you took offence at this review. Reviews are always going to come across as having a slightly superior tone – and I don’t think this one is particularly superior at all. Apart from appropriating and magnifying this ‘superior tone’ that reviewers sort of have a right to, your reply was just kind of mean and a bit pointless. It’s a review; it wasn’t at all damning and although I didn’t actually see the play it seems fair. Vitriol? Really? If you disagree go ahead and do so, and tell us why (you haven’t). And perhaps you should consider reviewing some things yourself, since you’re so good at it.

  • Anjali said:

    PS Don’t worry, I’m sure you put a lot of hard work and effort into the play (I’m assuming you were involved?) and that lots of people enjoyed it. It actually doesn’t come across too badly in this review; seems pretty standard for your average ‘good’ Durham production. Soon people who’ve actually seen it will comment here. They probably will have liked it.

  • Sue de Nime said:

    Thanks for your concern, Anjali, but I’m not worried at all. As I said, I agreed with a reasonable amount of the review itself. But that simply isn’t the point. The point is to properly research and evaluate the play and the characters in it and offer a substantiated critique of the actors and directors presentation of both.
    I have as little time for unsubstantiated praise as I do for censure.
    This just wasn’t a good review, at all. It was superficial and badly written. And I do believe that, if people are going to criticize other people’s work then they should do so only after having put in the requisite effort. No one cares about the largely unsubstantiated opinion of some random reviewer. Again, take a look at the review of Equus. That is by no means a complimentary critique, but it is delivered with consideration, flare, intelligence, consistent substantiation and a full understanding of the play and characters it is addressing.
    Surely this can’t be too hard to emulate?

  • Sue de Nime said:

    I’m also now a bit bored of reiterating my opinion. Whether people agree or not, I think this is a fair critique of an unacceptably self-indulgent review writing style. Either way, if my comments even made people think outside the solely opinion based box for even 5 seconds, then that’s a good thing. I am mildly sick of this modern zeitgeist for replacing genuine thought with knee-jerk assumption, which I feel this review to be a symptom of. Again, the reviewer really may be right about everything!! But that’s not the point.
    You wouldn’t write an essay without quotations and references.. you shouldn’t write a review without a point by point explanation of the reasoning behind your likes and dislikes. Taking refuge behind non-specific vagaries is just bad thinking, to say nothing of bad writing.

  • Tim said:

    You are really annoying Sue de Nime. And there: I’ve said everything I need to in two sentences. Oh wait, make it three: was this comment delivered with the consideration, flare, intelligence, consistent substantiation and a full understanding of your utterly tedious comments that you were looking for?

  • Sue de Nime said:

    Sorry to piss you off, Tim. It’s just one perspective… and it’s likely that my levels of irritation have been exacerbated by the fact that I’ve been cultivating cabin fever in my room during the essay writing hell of the last two weeks. If you find it annoying then just ignore it, you have every right to.

  • Anon said:

    Taking refuge behind a pseudonym is just cowardice. From anon.

  • Ben said:

    lol.

  • Tim said:

    I know it is my right, thank you. But yet it’s so hard to ignore a ‘perspective’ which has been forced upon us no less than 6 times, amounting to over 1,250 words of your opinion. And yes, I counted. (I’ve got essays too!) I just hope that the argument I construct in my forthcoming essay is a lot more founded and lucid than yours is here. No one in their replies to you asked you to ‘reiterate your opinion,’ we know what you think, now leave it. (And to be fair, I think you now have, so sorry for bringing this up!!)

    One final thing though. I don’t know this reviewer nor her previous work (be it theatrical or journalistic.) Reading this one review then, I must completely disagree that it noticeably reads with an ‘unacceptably self-indulgent review writing style.’ I therefore conclude that you must have read this article from some form of biased perspective, and it is not for me to conclude where this bias originated: (be it a) you being in a bad mood when reading it in your essay cabin, b)being involved in this production and feeling hard done by, c)seeing Equus and now thinking ‘what gives her the right’ or d) all of the above.) If I am right in this conclusion, then all of the responses to your comments (Donnchadh, Anjali) are intelligent and do not need re-justification on your part. If I am not right, then this is just one perspective. If you find it annoying then just ignore me, you have every right to.

    I will agree with one thing, the criticisms in this article do not seem to be fully backed up with much substance. I can see why, (IF you were involved in the production) the criticisms here would not read as helpful or constructive. Some read as more opinions, yes. But there is no need to attack Bobbi’s flair, style, research efforts or her own theatrical endeavours because of this.

  • Sue de Nime said:

    Ok… everything Tim says sounds reasonable, and is certainly one perspective. Except for the last part…

    There is a need to attack a reviewer’s lack of research if their review demonstrates that is has been inadequate. There is also something not wholly unreasonable in pointing that some of their criticisms happen to have been mistakes that they previously, and recently, made in a production of their own. Disparaging a production team for errors that you yourself have made, as though you were someone who had a claim to expertise, is, arguably, somewhat hypocritical. At the very least, it is in slightly poor taste. As for attacking the style of the writing… that was somewhat gratuitous of me, but no more so then criticizing other people’s work without adequately substantiating your opinion. In fact, that particular objection was really done to try and make the point that it actually isn’t nice to give people a hard time just because you can.
    Finally, it is possible that there are far worse review specimens out there and picking on this one was, perhaps, a little arbitrary. The simple reason is that I have only seen two productions here, one was Equus, and the other was Oedipus, and I have only read the reviews for those two. I admit that it legitimately got under my skin that someone who had received such a thoughtful and well-reasoned review for their own work (Equus) should feel it was appropriate to run off a rather slapdash and unsubstantiated piece in response to someone else’s work. Of course all review writing is, necessarily, opinion based up to a point… but the opinion offered should be fully explained and justified in order to maintain the integrity of the genre.
    I’m sure Bobbi is a nice and considerate person (most people basically are, in my experience). But, in this scenario, I don’t happen to care about who she is as a person. I care about the fact that this review is self-indulgent and poorly executed, which is something of an insult to the people it is reviewing. She could have offered nothing but unadulterated praise (in fact she did in places) and, as a review, it would have pissed me off just as much because it doesn’t do what is required of it.

  • Ben STARR, Liz SMITH, Ben SALTER (was not informed) said:

    Guys, at least Complete Works of Shakespeare – Abridged was good.

    Anon …(oops)

  • Jonny Muir said:

    I definitely have an unacceptably self-indulgent review writing style.

  • Jonny Muir said:

    Steady on, son.