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Review Round-up: A Fiennes Reception for Oedipus

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Jonathan Kent’s National Theatre production of Oedipus opened last night at the NT Olivier (16 October 2008, previews from 8 October), 13 years after the acclaimed Peter Hall production at the same venue starring Alan Howard, who now returns to play the blind prophet Teiresias opposite Ralph Fiennes in the title role (pictured) and Clare Higgins as Oedipus mother Jocasta (See Also Today’s 1st Night Photos).

In Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy, in a new version by Frank McGuinness, the people of Thebes look to Oedipus to lift a terrible curse from them and their city. 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.

The cast also features Patrick Brennan, Steven Page, Christopher Saul, David Shaw-Parker and Malcolm Storry. Oedipus is designed by Paul Brown, Kent’s long-term collaborator at the Almeida Theatre and, more recently, the Theatre Royal Haymarket season, with lighting by Neil Austin, sound by Paul Groothuis and music by Jonathan Dove.

Warm, if not rapturous, best surmises the overnight critical response. While Whatsonstage.com’s own Michael Coveney hailed Oedipus as “one of the best performances of Greek tragedy I have ever seen”, not all were in agreement. “An evening of many flaws” was the conclusion of some, with much of the criticism focussed on McGuinness’ translation – “an uneasy blend of stark poetry and … banal colloquialism”. However, there was ample praise for the performances, particularly Fiennes’ “superb” turn in the title role and Higgins’ chilling portrayal of Jocasta. And most critics applauded the play’s relevance, emphasised by Kent’s interpretation of the chorus as “resembling anguished city investors who have just learned that their hedge fund has gone bust”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “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 75 minutes of Jonathan Kent’s production are quite something … 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.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “There are many ways of looking at Sophocles\' hero. You can see him as a helpless victim of fate or an exemplary seeker after truth. But the bias of Frank McGuinness\' version and Ralph Fiennes\' performance is to view him as an arrogant, hubristic figure who achieves humility through suffering. And despite advance strictures, McGuinness\' translation admirably brings out the play\'s tragic trajectory … Fiennes is also the right actor to execute this interpretation. He radiates an instinctive hauteur which underscores Oedipus\' purblind pride … Alan Howard, Oedipus in Hall\'s revival, also magnificently reinforces the Beckettian resonance by playing the blind Teiresias as a mocking prophet with an Irish lilt. Jasper Britton deftly captures Creon\'s transition from condemned truth-teller to heartless power-seeker. And Clare Higgins as Jocasta, whose relationship with Oedipus is overtly sexual, has a great moment when she realises the terrible truth and her face darkens like a city suddenly deprived of illumination.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Jonathan Kent’s production, with a foot both in camps ancient and modern, still has a terrible fascination about it. Fiennes duly has a big, brave, bold shot at a role that demands the emotional virtuosity of a Gielgud, Scofield or Redgrave and to whose high notes he cannot entirely rise … Frank McGuinness, an always interesting, individual playwright, is not the best of translators … far too much of the McGuinness text, particularly his speeches for the chorus, a group akin to dignified but slightly disturbed MP, sounds preposterous … A shirt-sleeved Fiennes, collapsing in the arms of Alan Howard’s sombre Teiresias or in the lap of Clare Higgins’ oddly subdued Jocasta, who’s dressed up to look unsuitably common, adopts the hunted look of a man on the run. When finally confronted by the truth, he emits a long, muted shriek of pain that chills the blood. He tears open his mouth in a soundless scream of grief. Blinded, he resembles a Beckettian vagrant. It is an evening of many flaws, but as Fiennes demonstrates, Oedipus remains irresistibly terrifying.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “At times last night, Fiennes became a bit stilted, something one can’t blame on Frank McGuinness’ translation, which is unaffectedly colloquial — but he rose to the climaxes demanded of him. Confidence became fear became hope became despair. Reassurance turned out to be accusation in disguise. Oedipus was revealed as the poison he had vowed to eradicate. And Fiennes emitted a thin, dry, almost endless wail, his mouth gaping like the horse in Picasso’s Guernica … Maybe the revival is more awesome than moving, but maybe that’s what the tale of the self-destruction of a well-meaning but flawed tyrant should be. It’s also visually impressive, despite boasting no decor but one mighty bronze door, some fleetingly glimpsed trees, and, weirdly, a long trestle table round which gather 14 men who wear dark suits but no ties and themselves vaguely resemble bankers on their uppers. But this chorus doesn’t just chatter or moan. Its dismay, fear, terror rises into chant and, at the end, into a mini-opera of horror and suffering.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) – “The chorus, 14 men in grey suits resembling anguished city investors who have just learned that their hedge fund has gone bust, sing many of their speeches like ecclesiastical liturgy. Jonathan Dove has written the score, and it strikes me as overblown, constantly distracting from the meaning of the words in the search for emotional effect. Paul Brown’s monumental set … strikes me as similarly over the top, while McGuinness’ translation is an uneasy blend of stark poetry and sudden eruptions of banal colloquialism … Fiennes … isn’t up to the task. He cuts a striking figure, but his tragic anguish always seems to be applied from the outside … There is deeper work elsewhere – Higgins’ terror as Jocasta chills the blood while Alan Howard makes a hauntingly otherworldly Teiresias with his birdlike movements and hooting vocal delivery.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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