Review: Oedipus (King's Theatre, Edinburgh)

Robert Icke directs this version of Sophocles’ tragedy

© Jan Versweyveld

In a collaboration between director Robert Icke and Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, Sophocles' classical text Oedipus is placed amidst modern-day political intrigue.

The fact that the tale – which chronicles the downfall of a powerful leader who is visited by an oracle – and all its plot twists are so well known does not detract from the potency of this production, because the most interesting thing about the narrative is not what will happen, but how and when each of the oracle's prophecies will unfold.

Icke takes this fascination with time and runs with it. The events are played out in real-time, adding extra tension. We see Oedipus, (Hans Kesting), his wife Jocasta (Marieke Heebink) and his advisors on the evening of an important election that will determine the fate of the country as they know it. A large timer counts down the two hours until the election result, which simultaneously serves as a countdown to Oedipus' doom. In a time of several recent elections that have marked turning points in political history, the tension is at once relatable and immediate.

Oedipus is repeatedly encouraged to wait until after the election when his power is truly established as a leader before he delves into the secrets of the country. Yet Oedipus is insistent on seeking and obtaining knowledge the very same night. A hurried atmosphere is also achieved through video footage of a press conference the day of the election, a further reminder of the outside world and the building pressure of Oedipus' three-year campaign. All the characters wear smart business attire (courtesy of costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic), which also reminds us of the city outside those four walls.

Kesting plays a very sympathetic Oedipus. He is, for the most part, a considerate husband, politician and father. While he is ambitious and proud – his spates with Creon (Aus Greidanus Jr) displaying this – he is not capricious or power-hungry. His son, Polynices (Harm Duco Achut) is met with only love and reassurance upon coming out as gay. It is Oedipus' determination to discover the truth that leads to his tragedy.

It is the role of Tiresias, played by Hugo Koolschijn, that feels out of odds with this contemporary reimagining. There is some effort to modernise his role – his prophecies are referred to as electoral predictions, and there is a throwaway line about Tiresias being involved in new age nonsense, but it's a hard role to meld into this contemporary setting, and we see the stitching at the seams.

There is a sprinkling of humour throughout, although Frieda Pittoors as Merope, bears most of its weight. She brings both charm and excellent comedic timing to the role of Oedipus' grieving mother.

Overall, this is a slick production with a well thought out modern-day setting, that adds immediacy to a well-known tale.