Both star Ralph Fiennes and Jonathan Kent’s production of Sophocles’ classic tragedy “Oedipus” are at their considerable best when they try least hard to be monumental. The major challenge of staging Greek drama today is making sense of its conventions in the contemporary context, a task aided here by Frank McGuinness’ pared-back, sometimes colloquial version. Once Kent’s production hits its stride, the mixture of razor-focused acting, the interventions of a singing chorus of old men in suits, and the force of the unfolding narrative are marvelously, terribly compelling. But there are wobbles along the way.
Aggressive attempts to establish prod and story’s import start with Paul Brown’s set — a massive door sitting on the center of a dome, its copper coloring mottled with sickly green. Thanks to a bit of how-do-they-do-it cleverness, a picnic table downstage which becomes the chorus’ home base stays stationary while the rest of the playing area revolves, unsubtly suggesting the inexorability of time. Auds are also left in no doubt of their intended implication in the story when, as the play opens, Fiennes bursts through the door, strides downstage, and addresses the house directly: “My people, my friends, you have come before me — why?”
The 15-man chorus seated in the front rows slowly filters on stage as they respond. It is at first hard to adjust to the striking choice of having them both sing and speak their lines, and over-emoting by some chorus members is a consistent distraction. But as the tide of the evening rises, the chorus’ presence adds both visual/aural interest and gravitas.
Costumes are contemporary; Fiennes wears a slick suit and initially plays Oedipus as a glib politician. His assurances to his countrymen when they complain of the plague that grips Thebes come too easily, which is just the point. We’re being glad-handed.
The tonal gears grind somewhat with the arrival of Alan Howard as blind prophet Teiresias, a rumpled figure in cream linen who appears in front of a barren tree, is guided onstage by a young man and speaks with an Irish accent. Clearly, “Waiting for Godot” is being evoked, and indeed there is an important line to be drawn between the Greeks’ vision of predetermination and Beckett’s fatalistic worldview. But this feels like one layer of reference too many.
As Oedipus’ curiosity drives him to ask more questions about the death of former Theban ruler Laius, and as his wife Jocasta (Claire Higgins) joins him in trying to solve the mystery, the production becomes increasingly compelling. Appropriately, Higgins is visibly a generation older than Fiennes, giving a frisson to the open sensuality between them. Her silent realization of the truth of her relationship to Oedipus — that she is his mother as well as his wife — is horribly believable.
As for Fiennes, he plays his penny-dropping moment as a slow, high-pitched, never-quite articulated scream, holding his hands in front of his face and then stuffing his fists in his mouth. His conviction carries what could otherwise be a moment of excessive staginess.
For contemporary sensibilities, this is the play’s emotional peak, but there is more horror to come: Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’ self-blinding, both happening offstage and reported by messengers; and then his bloodied appearance onstage and his plea to his brother-in-law Creon (Jasper Britton) for banishment.
It feels like a misstep to play this final entrance as the evening’s most dramatic “reveal”: Even if the intention was to underline a sense of anti-climax, it does so at Fiennes’ expense — his performance of the scene can’t help but come across as stagy. This is recovered somewhat by the appearance of Oedipus’ children, costumed in school uniforms.
Because they look so contemporary, we are made to think of what the real-life impact on children would be of their parents’ horrible fate. The simplicity of the moment as Oedipus and his girls clutch each other and he implores them to “lead a good life — better than your father’s” represents this production at its powerful, moving best.