This is one of the best performances of a Greek tragedy I have ever seen. And as Sophocles’ fifth century drama – in a terrific new version at the National by Frank McGuinness, based on a literal translation from the Greek by Kieran McGroarty – is the best in the genre (who am I to disagree with Aristotle?) the seventy-five minutes of Jonathan Kent’s production are quite something.
The palace at Thebes in Paul Brown’s design is a huge steel portal, burnished and mottled, through which Ralph Fiennes as Oedipus strides confidently in a modern dark suit, an innocent psychotic, perfect political power player, anxious (well, interested) to know why he’s been summoned to save his own city. The old priest (David Burke) has ugly scars and blotches on his torso. The whole place is going belly-up with the plague.
The king’s brother-in-law, Creon (Jasper Britton), brings good news in a bad spell – the gods have said all will be fine once the murder of the previous king, Laius, is avenged – which is rather like saying the economy will be stabilised once the interest rates go back up. And then Kent plays his master stroke: the chorus of elders file on, also suited, like peasant farmers, and they chant their complaints to the glorious music of Jonathan Dove.
The stage revolves to reveal a distant tree and the sight of the great Alan Howard as the blind prophet Teiresias, proving the asininity of an ignorant, bitchy preview in the Guardian by Germaine Greer in his delivery of the line “You are who you are seeking to find”, and generally blessing the Fiennes performance with his presence as a significant former Oedipus (on this very stage) ten years ago. He arrives like Pozzo with a Lucky boy on a rope’s length, stalking the stage with his one good leg propped up on a walking stick, eyes obliterated in dark shades, and mines the lines for their Irish cadences and black humour.
The play unravels with the gripping fervour of a courtroom drama, Clare Higgins a distraught and blasted Jocasta, Malcolm Storry a sonorous messenger from Corinth and Alfred Burke the old shepherd who saved the abandoned princeling on the mountainside.
Fiennes is superb throughout – enigmatic, tense, compelling - and particularly good at expressing his grasp of unwelcome news in the embrace of the chorus. One false note is struck by the undiluted, simpering awfulness of the child actors as the blind king’s offspring – they seem to have wandered in from prep school in Hampstead – but you can’t have everything, as Oedipus finds out at some cost to himself.