Oedipus by Steven Berkoff (After Sophocles)

A tragedy with all the traditional Berkoff trademarks


By Lee Levitt, August 9, 2011

Berkoff first grappled with the Sophocles tragedy with his 1980 verse play "Greek", which transferred the plague-ridden action to London's grimy, boozy East End.

His new version of "Oedipus", published in 2000, though less extravagantly relocated - the painted backdrop could be of the Wild West - bears all the traditional Berkoff trademarks: violent, florid language oozes out of every actor's strained pores in the highly stylised, expressionistic physical theatre for which the Stepney-born actor, writer, director is renowned.

Simon Merrells' menacing Oedipus, sporting a shiny blue, three-piece suit, with a chunky silver-coloured necklace, veers from swaggering self-importance to haunted regicide.

While his queen, and mother, Jocasta, wearing a black dress with bat-like diaphonous side bits, is given a witchlike quality by Angie Dobson, of "EastEnders" fame, who speaks in a calm, measured, spell-like manner, often to the sound of a lyre.

Berkoff's Creon, dare one say it, looking a bit paunchy in his black garb, cuts a slightly bizarre figure when he first appears, centre stage, a bit like an overweight gunslinger entering a bar in a Western.

Maybe the moment is meant to be self-parodic, as the 74-year-old Berkoff does a little turn, the music is of the jaunty Greek variety and Creon is the man who would be king.

But though there are laughs to be had, the script - replete with images of rotting flesh, sins spreading like maggots in a rubbish bin, dead babies in the streets of Thebes and blood thick as glue - is not overly given to humour. And at times one feels it could do with a bit more to break up the mannered slow-motion pace that eventually threatens to pall.

Heresy, I know, and overall the acting and the miming of the chorus-like ensemble, on and around a long table, with frozen moments recalling works of Renaissance art, is superb.

Pleasance Grand, Until Aug 29, not Aug 10, 17 and 24

Last updated: 12:11pm, August 9 2011