Sophocles’ Oedipus is one of the greatest plays there is. It is virtually flawless in its structure and the use of its materials. It’s not just the perfect employment of the Aristotleian unities lots of Greek plays do that but its fusion of form and content, a tragic inevitability and a story that reaches deep into the psyche like no other. It also makes huge demands and this new National Theatre production by Jonathan Kent goes a long way to meet the challenges.
A successful production of the play hinges on the central performance and Ralph Fiennes is enormously impressive as the king, whose life unravels in a short space of time with irresistible momentum. He is cocky and arrogant in his disdain for Creon, the supposed pretender to his throne, and Tiresias, the harbinger of his fate, whose blindness mocks Oedipus’ own.
His slow realisation and crumbling, as the mystery of his origin unfolds, is totally believable and, as the broken, blinded husk led away by his child, he maintains an illusion that is way beyond any that the most taxing of roles demands from actors outside the world of Greek tragedy.
Clare Higgins is equally outstanding as his unfortunate mum, her breakdown on recalling the loss of her infant, torn from her arms and left to die on a mountainside, quite heartwrenching. This is emotion writ as large as any outside the opera house.
Kent all but solves the testing problem of the chorus, and the use of two actors among them with a huge experience of opera performance Steven Page and Darren Fox is a great strength in underpinning the black-clad troupe who frequently break into song, to a spiky score by Jonathan Dove. Kent’s recent forays into opera seem to feed in a sense of scale to the production.
Paul Brown’s designs are simple and arresting a raked disk that revolves like a slow-turning planet and throws everything slightly off balance dominated by a monumental palace door of tarnished bronze. Panels at the back swing open to admit visitors and reveal glimpses of a bright world beyond the claustrophobic confines of the main arena.
There are solid supporting performances: Jasper Britton may be a tad too likeable as Creon but turns nasty once he has the upper hand. Rasping and dipping like a wounded hawk, Alan Howard is as extraordinary as ever as the blind prophet, and Malcolm Storry is strong as the stranger who brings the vital evidence from Corinth. Gwilym Lee, graduated from Guildhall only this year, is remarkably assured in the key role of the messenger who delivers the news of Jocasta’s hanging and Oedipus’ self-maiming.
Frank McGuiness provides a new version of the text, muscular in tone and streaked with modernity, in keeping with the contemporary suits of the male-dominated cast.
If the whole thing falls slightly short of greatness, it’s in a tendency to impress more than move. It engrosses but doesn’t quite take you all the way emotionally, although there is little else of such grandeur to be seen on the London stage at the moment.