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Oedipus Retold review

The timeless tale of Oedipus – that most unfortunate of men who suffers a fate worse than death by killing his father and breeding with his mother – enjoys a modern makeover in Oedipus Retold, now playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

It’s a tale we all know – or do we? The evening comprises two one act plays, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at the Crossroads, both by Jeremy Kingston (Making Dickie Happy), which come at Sophocles’ story from radically different and imaginatively original angles.

First up is Oedipus the King, which is Kingston’s homage to Sophocles. Set in modern day and using modern English (including some indecorous vernacular amid the rich prose), Oedipus the King still retains a flavour of the Ancient Greek text with a stylised approach to the storytelling that is a touch verbose at times. The link to the Athenian original is reinforced by Faye Bradley’s excellent design that lines the back of the stage with eerily-lit blank, staring face masks – the mute citizenry of Thebes. One of the most impressive elements of the production is an outstanding ensemble cast that works in unison giving full-blooded performances.

Oedipus Retold
David Shaw-Parker and Tom Shepherd. Photo by Richard Davenport.

In the title role is Tom Shepherd, whose angry hubris in the first act gives way to charming affability in the second. Playing Jocasta his wife (and mother…) is Clare Cameron, whose tactile sensuousness around her husband (and son…) underpins the horror of the story, as does her visceral cry of anguish as realisation dawns. In another effective pairing, David Shaw-Parker and Steve Watts emerge as the most sympathetic characters: bumbling but well-intentioned country folk.  Jack Klaff is electrifying in his intensity, at times shaking with rage and bringing forth tears, his mellifluous voice quavering with righteous indignation as the falsely accused Kreon.

Oedipus Retold
Jack Klaff and David Shaw-Parker. Photo by Richard Davenport.

Kingston ratchets up the tension as the confrontations come ever closer to the truth, whilst Robert Gillespie’s direction creates and retains a claustrophobic potency. Nevertheless there are much-needed moments of lightness supplied by the chorus. The pairing of an older woman and young man provides an effective contrast, and Judi Scott is hilarious, finding comic touches where few actors would even go looking. Scott and Luke Hornsby-Smith take a bit of getting used to since their characters’ tone is in sharp contrast to the rest of the piece, but the levity they bring benefits the drama.

After the interval, Oedipus at the Crossroads takes the story and turns it on its head. What if Oedipus had met his father at the foretold place and… struck up a conversation with him? Gone are the modern togs to be replaced by togas and sandals. What emerges is a satire on religion as biting and funny as Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where Kingston’s wit is as excoriating as it is on target. The sparkling dialogue examines something akin to a conspiracy theory with a fantastic twist at the end (we won’t spoil it).

Oedipus Retold
Jack Klaff and Tom Shepherd. Photo by Richard Davenport.

The contrast between the tragic and comic takes on the story enables all actors to shine. Whilst Jack Klaff is delightfully funny after the break as the worried Laius, Luke Hornsby-Smith trades in his genial citizen to become a sinister attendant to Richard Earthy’s equally unpalatable Tiresias.

Kintgston takes evident relish in attacking the absurdity of the story. “There are such things as daughters,” Oedipus tells his father, learning that he’s avoided sex with his wife for nineteen years in case the oracle’s prediction comes true (though he’s found other outlets). The father/son sparring between Klaff and Shepherd is the highlight of the show, as it becomes a battle between Laius’ superstition and reverence for the gods versus Oedipus’ earthy rationalism.

Oedipus Retold raises questions about fate and destiny with intelligence and wit, split into delightfully contrasting tragic and comic halves. It’s an especial treat for the irreligious. Even those who may find its subject matter and conclusions uncomfortable will be drawn in by the world of the story and the incredible performances that bring it to life. It’s definitely worth a visit.

Greg Jameson
Greg Jameson
Book editor, with an interest in cult TV.

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