Posted on: 07 November 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Ralph Fiennes takes centre stage in the Greek tragedy.

A chilling study in the egotism of power and a damning indictment of the lack of accountability of those in power is provided by Sophocles in his classic Greek tragedy Oedipus which, in Jonathan Kent’s stirring new modern dress production for the National Theatre (Olivier auditorium), has a remarkably contemporary feel.

The people of Thebes look to Oedipus to lift a terrible curse from them and their city which has been devastated by plague.  He consults the oracle and learns that he must root out the late king’s murderer.  But his relentless interrogation of one man after another leads inexorably, and in the space of a single day, to his own savage conclusion.

It would have been easy for this tale of a man who kills his father and beds, weds and goes on to beget four children by his mother to go well over the top and lack any sense of realism and involvement, mixing as it does incest , parricide and self-mutilation.  But this intense and raw new version by Frank McGuinness gives it an urgency and conviction that makes it particularly suited to our present time of global crisis and unease.  Indeed Sophocles’s exploration of guilt and grief, murder and misfortune and destiny and free will still has the ability to shock and surprise us if the production is spot on as it is here.

Director Jonathan Kent elicits a stunning central performance from Ralph Fiennes as the shaven haired tragic hero with an inescapable fate, a man veering from arrogance and contempt, disregarding the words of those around him, to helpless child, howling like an animal and realising that he hasn’t escaped the curse placed on him.  Strong support is provided by Clare Higgins who manages to be both sexual and maternal as the hapless queen Jocasta, while Alan Howard, in rumpled beachcomber suit and wearing dark glasses, impresses as the cynical blind prophet Teiresias.  The male chorus, clad in dark suits, brings a touch of grace to an otherwise unflinching picture of suffering.

Above all what Kent does most successfully is to convey the painful psychological truths of the piece for a 21st century audience.

Laurence Green

Plays in repertory until 4th January 2009.

Booking Information

Box office: 020 7 452 3000 or: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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