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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Ralph Fiennes and Clare Higgins/PH: Catherine Ashmore

Ill-advised - tasteless, even - though it might be to say so in this context, the eyes have it in Ralph Fiennes' performance as Oedipus, the Theban king who loses his sight at around the time that he comes by the most dreadful possible clarity. Sure, it's the vaguely thuggish bald pate of which you may first take note when a nattily dressed Fiennes steps forward on to the sizable expanse of designer Paul Brown's minimally appointed set. (Outsize portals, their gilded facade gently peeling, vie for attention with a sloping table that more often that not exists to accommodate the male chorus.) But within minutes, the pain and ache behind those orbs start to exert their grip, in conjunction with arguably the finest theater voice of his generation. I'm not sure this remarkably committed actor - the more movies he does, the more frequently Fiennes seems to return to his stage roots - quite navigates the eventual scream that by all accounts marked out Laurence Olivier's occupancy of the same part. What difference, though, when you feel yourself in the terrible if theatrically electric grip of a man who endures a reckoning beyond all comprehension? Sophocles' play, in Frank McGuinness's vigorous new version, relates its genuinely incredible truths to us early on, leaving its title character to come to grips with the actuality of a fate that goes from the stuff of prophesy to prompt a bloodletting beyond most mortals' belief.

The director, Jonathan Kent, has worked frequently with Fiennes, which can be a mixed blessing when two people know one another too well to push them as hard as they might otherwise have done. No such concerns, thankfully, afflict a production that reminds us yet again of Kent's operatic penchant for large-scale emotions here tethered to a play concerned with human behaviour so extraordinary that an entire genre - that's to say, Greek tragedy - has tended to be played behind masks, so as to help contain events surpassing all comprehension. Fiennes' innate cool does wonders to avoid the sort of exhibitionism on display only come the scream, which on opening night began as a sigh and then evolved into a strangled bleat: one wonders whether the effect is the same every night. It's not that you don't feel for this Oedipus, though tears in some ways seem too conventional a response. But Fiennes is at his unsparing best as he moves ever closer toward his face-off with the inevitable, his panicky retreat in the final analysis replaced by a self-knowledge surpassing language, which is where the eyes have it. Until, in accordance with this play, they don't.

Kent met with mixed reviews on this same stage in 1995 with a Mother Courage starring Diana Rigg, his other theatrical mainstay besides Fiennes: a production I still remember fondly (and defend) to this day. But even more than with the Brecht, the director makes the entire company count, lifting what could have merely been a showy star vehicle into a proper ensemble piece. It's genuinely thrilling to find a previous National Oedipus, Alan Howard, in supreme form as an Irish-accented Teiresias who seems to have made his way into the world of the Greeks by way of Beckett and is first glimpsed escorted on to the stage as if in some visual parody of Waiting for Godot. Somewhat hampered of late by illness, Howard rings infinitely eerie notes of truth-telling before an understandably resistant Oedipus, who replies in one of the more droll moments of a not exactly hilarious evening, I intend to, when told to roar.

But the entire cast is up to the formidable task. Jasper Britton offers a Creon stiffening into an authority that is itself gently chilling, if perhaps the necessary corrective amid a time of plague among the populace at large not to mention Oedipus's own psychic devastation.


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