The Stratford Festival has taken some strong antihistamines to control its allergy to Greek Drama and produced Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex at The Tom Patterson Theatre. More about allergies below.
The production is directed by Daniel Brooks and it has some fine performances and makes a few points. However grateful one may be for the opportunity to see one of the great plays of the world, one is reminded of Richard Bentley’s comment about a translation by Alexander Pope: "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer."
Gord Rand as Oedipus and Yanna McIntosh as Jocasta with members of the company in Oedipus Rex.
Photography by David Hou.
Brooks’ production of Oedipus Rex may have some dramatic moments but it must not be called Sophoclean tragedy.
This is a modern-dress production done on a bare stage where the only props are a steel desk, an office chair and some folding chairs.
Gordon Rand’s Oedipus is an intense youngish man who is eager to find the truth. He seems sincere but he has a temper and when pressure gets to him he throws a temper tantrum.
As King of Thebes, he is a hero to his people because he saved the city from the Sphinx, a horrible monster. However on his way to Thebes from Corinth where he was raised, he killed a man called Laius. That man was his father who had left the child Oedipus on a mountain to die in order to avoid the oracle that said Laius’s son would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus was saved by a shepherd and unknowingly fulfilled the oracle.
When the play opens, Thebes is devastated by a plague and the people and Oedipus try to find out the reason for it. The play slowly leads to the tragic truth about whom Oedipus killed and whom he married.
Oedipus is a heroic figure, a saviour of his city who seeks the truth without flinching and who punishes himself appropriately for his crimes however innocently committed. He gouges his own eyes out. In other words he is a man of high seriousness, of great integrity, of gravitas, if you will. That is missing from this production. The final scene when he appears with blood streaming down his face (and gratuitously naked) Rand is indeed dramatic and effective but for the rest of the performance he is the rather shallow dramatic figure of Daniel Brooks’ imagination.
Nigel Bennett (left) as Teiresias and Gord Rand as Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. Photography by David Hou.
A Greek tragedy is operatic in its use of the Chorus. There was music, singing and dancing but we know almost nothing about how they were done. That may be so, but a production cannot simply ignore the Chorus. It would be like listening to the Hallelujah Chorus without music or singing.
Brooks gives the choral lines to three choristers who step up to a microphone and speak as if they are televangelists. The rest of the one dozen choristers do almost nothing except move around the stage, whisper among themselves and repeat a few words. It simply does not work.
Tiresias, the blind prophet of Apollo who reveals what Oedipus has done unwittingly is played effectively by Nigel Bennett. Tiresias was a man who became a woman (or was he simultaneously male and female?) and Brooks makes the point by having Bennett wear earrings and turquoise shoes with high heels.
The rest of the cast act as effectively as if they were speaking ordinary prose in a modern drama. Christopher Morris as Kreon and Yanna McIntosh as Jocasta stand out. Shannon Taylor plays the priest of Apollo wearing a striking red costume that looks like the vestment of an Eastern Orthodox prelate, except for the colour.
Oedipus Rex has quite a pedigree at Stratford. It was produced in the second and third seasons of the Festival under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie. James Mason was Oedipus in 1954 and Douglas Campbell in 1955. That’s what you call “the good old days” I suppose.
There was a truncated version of Oedipus Rex as part of a double bill by The Young Company in 1988 and the 1954-55 production was revived in 1997.
One is grateful for any opportunity to visit the fountainhead of Western drama but our gratitude would be exponentially greater if we could say that the production had a closer relationship to Sophocles.