Just north of Warren Street, along Euston Road, a modern business park dominates the vista. Banks, coffee shops and anonymous offices define the place in the daytime. Yet come night-time, the New Diorama Theatre opens its doors as many others are closing. A black box seating eighty, the space is small and unassuming and gives the audience no chance to let their eyes wander: the immediacy of theatre is felt at its most intense.

Thebes kicks off 2014 for the Faction, a twelve-head ensemble interpreting classical texts in today’s aesthetic. In this case, that means a full-length reworking of tragedies by Sophocles and Aeschylus documenting the downfall of Oedipus (Lachlan McCall) and the subsequent tyranny of Creon (an exceptional performance from Cary Crankson). Gareth Jandrell’s text cuts to the chase and brings out Thebes’s political shifts at an amazing speed – Oedipus’s horrific discovery takes no more than half an hour to hit the stage. In the second half there is a bit more room for reflection, as a beautifully balanced Antigone (Derval Mellett) slowly but surely brings the people to realise their potential power over an increasingly crazed leader.

In ancient Greece, tragedies were often followed by a satyr play – light entertainment to lift the spirits after sadness and despair. Whereas the Greeks could easily empty their diaries for a whole day to see some theatre, in today’s hurried society a different solution is needed. Thus, in a luminous twist, this comic relief is built into Thebes in the form of sudden breaks in the stylised and heightened language, making place for contemporary expletives. Surprising and irreverent, it works both to elicit a laugh and to value the heavy stuff even more.

The minimalist approach is daring and impressive. In a bare space, virtually without props, it falls upon the twelve actors to make it happen. Everyone is always on stage, there are no wardrobe changes, and transformations as well as deaths have to be acted fully – without recourse to technical contrivances. These elements hardly ever work against the production; rather, they make sure the energy of the drama never falters. The chorus acts now as one body, then as individuals, in dynamic and inventive physical theatre. The mob hisses, writhes and fights. In true tragic fashion, they provide the reaction to all that is happening. In the spirit of democracy, their voice is vital. This is a very clever production indeed.

Thebes is playing at the New Diorama Theatre until 22 February. For more information and tickets, see the New Diorama Theatre website.

Photo by Richard Davenport