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Edinburgh Fringe 2011

Oedipus by Steven Berkoff (After Sophocles)

East Productions, Pleasance, Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman

Genre: Drama


Pleasance Grand


Low Down

Thebes; the Gods are angry and have put a terrible curse on the city. Condemned by his own arrogance – his refusal to even contemplate anyone else’s point of view – truth and fate conspire as Oedipus unwittingly sets his own downfall in motion. It soon becomes clear that his only success will be in sealing his own fate.


The complex story of Oedipus is perhaps antiquity’s most recognizable tragedy. Years ago Laius, king of Thebes, was warned by the Oracle that any son born to him would grow up to commit patricide. When Laius’ queen, Jocasta, was delivered of a boy the royal couple determined to expose the infant on a mountainside. They entrusted the deed to a servant who in the moment was unable to carry out his instructions. Instead the child was passed into the caring hands of the childless king of Corinth who named the child Oedipus on account of the swelling on his ankles which Laius had ordered bound to prevent the doomed infant crawling. When, as an adolescent, Oedipus learnt of his adoption he also consulted the Oracle and was told that he was destined to be the murderer of his father. He entered into voluntary exile, unwittingly striking out on the path which will lead him to kill Laius, marry Jocasta and ascend the throne of Thebes.

Oedipus opens in the palace at Thebes. The city is besieged by ill fortune. The councilors urge King Oedipus to end the suffering by exposing the killer of his predecessor. The death of Laius is an unsolved affront to the gods. Oedipus knows more about Laius’ death than he chooses to make known but even he does not appreciate the true extent of his crime. Berkoff’s faithful reimagining of Sophocles’ drama about the downfall of Oedipus is lyrical, witty and inspired. The writing breathes fresh life and vigor into the classical artifice.

What is lacking is an attempt to unravel the thoughts and motivations of Queen Jocasta. Her crimes perhaps exceed those of Sophocles’ great villainess Clytemnestra. Jocasta intended to murder her child; she married her husband’s killer, their son; she bore her son children of their own. Her incapacity to put two and two together as the prophecies converge is either deliberate obfuscation of extreme fecklessness. This production offers no hint of a verdict on the infanticide and incestuous Queen (played by Anita Dobson) – indeed she seems to have been totally overlooked as an active participant in this male dominated drama.

Owing to indisposition, Steven Berkoff was absent from this performance. Yet his presence was felt in every aspect of the production. His trademark style is to ascend the heights of the dramatic art with a focus and commitment which would be preposterous but for the flashes of unequalled brilliance. Berkoff has marshaled together an almighty cast, led by the phenomenal Simon Merrells. They are a company that has been drilled, drilled and drilled again so that every maneuver is parade ground perfect. Yet the movement is fluid, the momentum real. Together they vanquish all sense that there might be a world beyond this tightly formed dramatic space where the atmosphere crackles with tension.

The set is dominated by a large table running the length of the stage. This unadorned piece of furniture proves highly adaptable as it is sat on, climbed on, danced on and walked upon. If Leonardo had a table in mind as he sketched out The Last Supper – this one might well have been it. The lighting, sound and staging all contribute to a hugely atmospheric piece. Not a cue seemed to be missed.

This is an exceptional piece of theatre – seemingly unsinkable. Yet looming from the mists is an unavoided obstacle – the society of its origin and the society of its reimagining have attitudes to women that are worlds apart. Failing to present an understanding of Jocasta (and in doing so making poor use of Anita Dobson’s obvious talent) left a gaping hole in the side of this monumental example of theatrical engineering. It robbed a brilliantly conceived and directed production of purpose and insight.