Oedipus Retold is a back-to-back performance of an adaption by Jeremy Kingston of the classic Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, followed by Oedipus at the Crossroads, an original work also by Kingston. Both are directed by Robert Gillespie, who has written, performed and directed for both TV and the stage. While Sophocles’ work is monumental in its own right, and has carved a long and unavoidable swathe of its own through modern literary culture, Crossroads follows on gracefully from it after the interval, treating it as an introduction while it plays on the questions still on our mind with a lively cynicism and wit.
Oedipus’ story is one likely familiar to everyone: the impulsive and intelligent King Oedipus searches for the solution to a great calamity affecting his people, only to find the prophecy he has been running from all his life catching up to him and tearing him, his family and his country apart. Sophocles’ story is eternally powerful in its ruthlessness; fate is inescapable and cruel and Oedipus’ helpless choices and reasonable outlook only an illusion. Everyone is subject to invisible forces.
It is a shame then that this production of Tyrannos proves so uninspiring. Kingston’s new translation and adaption never seems to decide between either a witty rewrite or a more orthodox grandiose tragedy, rather bouncing around somewhere between the two and doing neither particularly well. Jack Klaff’s Creon is the Classical strength to Oedipus’ reason, but all the power he brings is quickly diluted and forgotten by the arrival of Judi Scott and Luke Hornsby-Smith, who play a pseudo-Greek chorus transformed into an incongruously light-hearted double act; an annoyingly untroubled older citizen and a confused young man. These chorus segments, which form such a substantial part of any Classical drama, are particularly bizarre and tedious, their tone distancing us entirely from the unrelenting tragedy which bookends them.
The production does little to excite or complement the two pieces either. A wall of lifeless masks in the background, presumably representing Thebes’ citizens, remind us how disengaged we also are from the drama. A libation bowl shares the stage with Oedipus’ only other possession, a handy tree which also doubles as a garden bench.
Luckily Oedipus at the Crossroads somewhat rescues the performance. Kingston’s own work depicts Oedipus meeting his father and, having just heard the terrible prophecy that he will kill him, wisely settling down to have a natter with him instead. Kingston asks “how could Oedipus ever have been so stupid as to let Tyrannos happen?” and then fabricates a witty answer of entirely his own invention. Crossroads is a light-hearted satire on the pervasion of institutional, particularly religious, authority into our daily and socio-political lives, portrayed through a mock-conspiracy plot set in a fictional, mythological past. At times it drifts into the convoluted, verbose or repetitive (a lengthy fight scene being particularly drab) but is in the main delightful and intelligent. One has to ask if poking fun at the logic of Greek mythology is perhaps a somewhat easy and juvenile premise, but Kingston’s script has a self-aware and self-contained absurdity of its own that helps it rise above this, whilst paying tribute to its predecessor nonetheless.
Crossroads also gives the stellar cast a chance to really shine as Kingston re-imagines the myth’s characters. Tom Shephard’s Oedipus is here charmingly cocky and sharp, and Jack Klaff, now cast as Kreon’s brother and Oedipus’ father Laius, brings the same Classical edge which translates well into comedy and irony. Luke Hornsby-Smith is better suited in the guise of an eerily loyal clerical assistant. Richard Earthy is perhaps the greatest transformation, once the blind prophet Tiresias, now Tiresias, the menacing, ever-scheming priest.
Oedipus Retold is partly a flawed production of Sophocles’ classic, supplemented by a great cast. Sadly the quality of its second half and second play is eclipsed by the first, and together makes for a forgettable performance.