Review: Oedipus

By John Nathan, October 23, 2008
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Clare Higgins discovers the awful truth about her husband Ralph Fiennes in the National’s staging of Oedipus

Clare Higgins discovers the awful truth about her husband Ralph Fiennes in the National’s staging of Oedipus

Olivier, National Theatre, London SE1

As Ralph Fiennes's Oedpius tries to calm the fearful people of Thebes, you could be forgiven for mistaking him for a more modern, though equally emotionally remote leader attempting to rescue his people in a crisis.

But comparisons with Gordon Brown have to stop there. Despite Jonathan Kent's production being mainly populated by men in suits who look like government ministers, when it comes to Greek tragedy you can go only go so far with modern relevance. What drives Sophocles's play, here translated by Frank McGuinness, is an ancient question - are we ruled by ourselves or by God?

"Apollo dances to see me suffer," cries Fiennes's Oedipus, his gouged eyes a self-inflicted punishment for his unintended crime of killing his father and marrying his mother. For most of its tense uninterrupted 100 minutes, Kent's production moves inexorably and elegantly towards this unbearable moment of realisation.

As the Olivier's round stage slowly revolves, so the truth unravels. And when that moment comes, Fiennes's Oedipus exhales a cry until his scream becomes silent.

Even more painful to watch is his wife and mother Jocasta, played by a bullish Clare Higgins, who stands desolate at the realisation that her son is the father of her children. Before then, Alan Howard's angry and blind prophet Teiresias portends the coming bleakness when he arrives led by a rope attached to his slave's neck, just like Pozzo in Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

But the evening is inevitably Fiennes's who embodies the truth that those who suffer most usually deserve it least.

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    Last updated: 11:31am, October 23 2008