Oedipus is a notorious story, and its plotline of incest, patricide, exile and blindness have passed into common knowledge through Freud’s controversial Oedipal complex. It seems odd then, that in this new version of Sophocles infamous play, director and adaptor Wayne Jordan labours the plot so heavily.
Set on as pared back a stage as possible, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre is exposed, and along the back wall in a grid formation are floodlights. The scenery is composed of dozens of wooden chairs, a table and there is only one stage prop, that of Oedipus’ wooden crown. For a play obsessed with sight, who has seen what and Oedipus’ ultimate self inflicted mutilation, the minimalist set emphasises the characters’ inability to acknowledge their fate. The shuffling of the chairs merely emphasises how futile their meddling is in the face of the Gods. Only fully illuminated at the play’s finale when all the horror is revealed, the setting mirrors Thebes’ dawning of the poison within.
In keeping with the stripped back staging, Jordan’s adaption (literal translation Michael Lloyd) uses contemporary language to convey the tragedy in a direct manner. This accessibility is a welcome tool when tackling Greek tragedy, and a means to put fresh life into a millennia-old play. The influence of W. B. Yeats in the adaptation is explicitly referenced through quotations from The Second Coming. Through the prosaic language there is no hiding Oedipus’ desperate attempt at blindness in the face of his the face of his own monstrous actions.
However, this denial of Oedipus’ birth and subsequent abandonment, is conveyed not only through the dialogue on stage but also the Chorus. Composer, Musical Director and Sound Designer, Tom Lane, has the men and women of the Chorus sing their outlook on the city of Thebes through chanting and choral intoning. This sacred sound certainly has the power to increase the intensity of the plot, but the frequent and lengthy intervals given over to the Chorus’ songs lead to a desensitising of their influence. While the character of the Chorus is often used as a moral barometer in Greek tragedy, the frequent repetition here of their horror at the dire situation leads to a disengagement from the audience.
Barry John O’Connor leads the cast with his performance of Oedipus, and his utter unravelling and disfiguring at the play’s conclusion is alarming and shocking, even when expected. Staying true to Greek traditions, the violence takes place off stage, increasing the utter fall of O’Connor’s Oedipus.
Running at one hour 45 minutes with no interval, Jordan’s Oedipus does feel lengthy and overwhelming. However the abhorrent nature of this play is not lost, and when all is finally revealed on the bare stage with its unforgiving lighting, it’s clear to see why this tale continues to obsess.
Oedipus is playing Abbey Theatre until 31 October. For more information and tickets, see the Abbey Theatre website. It is playing as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. This coverage of the festival was made possible thanks to Travel Supermarket. For more information to travelling to Dublin, click here. Photo by Abbey Theatre.