Like every other English Literature student in St Andrews, I had to read Oedipus Rex for the first week of a module advertised as an introduction to drama. The implication was that theatre started here: Oedipus Rex was the original great play. To write and direct your own version of Oedipus Rex is not a task for the fainthearted. Fortunately, there was nothing fainthearted about Gabriele Uboldi’s production, performed this week in the Byre Theatre. The play overflowed with ambitious choices, and the resulting mix of live-action, music, and projected images was equal parts disorientating and intriguing.
The play begins from the moment the audience enters the theatre, with the actors already milling about the stage. Between the throbbing music from an onstage DJ and the way the actors stretched their limbs as if preparing for a sporting match filled the room with anticipation. Most striking of all was the production design – costumes and furniture all rendered in sharp black and white. Gradually, the houselights dimmed and the audience settled in. The actors started frantically passing around a white suit jacket until one of them finally put it on. Then the ticking time bomb of a story that is Oedipus Rex began.
The plot of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is relatively straightforward. Oedipus, king of Thebes, vows to investigate the murder of his predecessor, Laius, an act that has poisoned the city. Ignoring multiple warnings to leave the truth uncovered, Oedipus discovers that he himself was Laius’ killer. He has accidentally fulfilled the very prophecy he swore to avoid: that he would one day kill his father and (the bit that everyone remembers) sleep with his mother.
Oedipus Rex is often held up as the textbook example of the three classical unities in drama: unity of action, unity of place and unity of time. In other words, Sophocles’ play takes place in one location over one day and with no subplots. Uboldi’s production, however, is far more interested in disunity. The lead role of Oedipus was literally split between four actors, passing around the white jacket that came to represent the weight of political power on their shoulders. (I found myself wondering during the performance what the plural of Oedipus is – Oedipi? Oedipodes?) With the location and time jumping around, Uboldi creates a portrait of both a fractured nation and a fractured mind. In one especially intense, if not exactly subtle, moment we see a literal tug of war play out, reflecting Oedipus’ inner conflict.
Uboldi transplants the story of Oedipus into modern times, with mass media bringing his every political move under intense scrutiny. Cameras and microphones hover around him and occasionally the audience are transported into a television studio where sickeningly cheery talk show presenters pass judgment on Oedipus’ every move. Timely questions of truth and lies in a democracy permeate this adaptation. Particularly enjoyable were the performances of Felix Griffin Pain and Isobel Sinclair as Creon and Tiresias, turning their characters into slimy political advisors who would not feel out of place in Johnson’s Downing Street or Trump’s White House.
The heart of Oedipus Rex however is a timeless theme: the battle between fate and free will. A few clever touches created the haunting impression that Oedipus was powerless to change the course of events laid out for him. Occasionally, Oedipus would stop and ask to be fed his next line from somebody standing behind the video cameras. It was a jarring, unsettling moment – the opposite of what an audience expects to see. As events spiral out of control, time becomes indistinct. Laius reappears, repeating Oedipus’ words back to him. There is a growing sense that all this has happened before and will happen again.
Suffice to say, there was a lot going on in this production. And while there were many individual elements to recommend it (the music, the stark production design, the performances), I am unfortunately unconvinced that the result was a cohesive whole. I cannot help but wonder if the play would have benefitted from stripping away some of its more perplexing sequences. The sudden dance number halfway through, for example, was entertaining by itself but I am still struggling to see its purpose in the play. Martina Sardelli gave a brilliantly layered performance as Oedipus’ lover/mother Jocasta, but her fleshed-out backstory as an actor in a completely different Greek tragedy felt like an in-joke for Classics students that left me feeling like I had missed something. The splitting of the main role, the dream sequences, the use of video cameras – all interesting ideas in themselves but overwhelming and occasionally baffling when crammed into a 90-minute production.
There is a thin line in theatre, or indeed in any artform, between something being enjoyably cryptic and frustratingly opaque. Furthermore, that line is in a different place for everyone. For me, Oedipus Rex veered back and forth over that line. In Oedipus’ closing monologue, he looks out at the audience, wild-eyed, and asks ‘Who is Oedipus?’ A day later I still have no idea. But then maybe that was the point.