The Fizz behind the mask

'As action-packed as Dallas...' At Epidaurus, in Greece, John Whitley marvels at the tension and compressed energy in Sir Peter Hall's production of the 'Oedipus' plays

These have been encouraging weeks for the shock troops of the 'authentic theatre' movement: the opening in London of the Globe, the painstakingly precise replica of Shakespeare's early theatre, is now closely followed by Peter Hall's production of two of the oldest of all Western plays, Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannos and Oedipus at Colonus, at the open-air theatre at Epidaurus as part of last weekend's Athens Festival.

Epidaurus, of course, is no reconstruction but the real thing: a breathtaking semi-circle of 15,000 marbled seats cut into the hillside some two hours from Athens, where the central canon of the Ancient Greek soap opera of royal passion, conquest and retribution has been played out for the past 2,000 years. It was here, quite probably, that Sophocles performed his own Oedipus Tyrannos around 420BC and the amphitheatre's proportions have inspired several modern auditoria, including the Olivier in the National Theatre, where Hall's production will transfer on September 17.

The pairing of the two plays, starting in the 9pm twilight and separated only by an interval, marks Hall's return to the National company, eight years after his term as its inaugural artistic director came to an end. He has also become a regular visitor to Epidaurus - to an extent which has provoked mutterings among less frequently employed local directors - since his pioneering conflation of the Oresteia in 1982 in a bold translation by Tony Harrison which fitted snugly into the Olivier.

At Epidaurus, though, there are no wings or fly towers to hide behind. Everything has to be done out in the open on the circle of sand which thrusts out into the audience, and Hall emphasises this nakedness by arranging his 20-strong cast in highly stylised patterns and gestures which remind one of Japanese theatre as strongly as Greek, and which create a powerful sense of ritual that is further heightened by the full masks they all wear.

But if this stately dance of death is much as Sophocles himself must have seen it, Hall does not attempt some sort of archaeological dig for thespians. Performed in the flatly primed, colloquial English of Ranjit Bolt's adaptation, the production jettisons traditional trappings such as the theatre house closing the acting space in favour of an elongated catwalk which only members of the royal household can bestride.

The lighting, too, relies on footlights and discreetly placed batteries of spots rather than nature; though it is hard to resist the moment of magic around 11.15 pm when the moon floats above the pines that shield the amphitheatre and covers the blind, exiled Oedipus in chilly light as he berates his misguided son in Oedipus at Colonus.

It is this difficult, late play, in fact, which benefits most from the austere, measured approach - even though it is itself little more than a static exchange of Lear-esque invective, as rival princelings battle for possession of the once execrated king who has been converted into a powerful mascot by his suffering. The deliberate slowness of pace compresses all the energy of the confrontations between father, children and brother-in-law into a fizzing tension which makes it seem as action-packed as the fastest Dallas episode.

To suggest humanity through such rigid choreography demands acting of high discipline and Hall has assembled an outstanding company, from Suzanne Bertish's excitable Jocasta, shifting from maternal bossiness to suicidal despair at the drop of a prophecy, to Greg Hicks's eerie, St-John-the-Baptist Tiresias, complete with a disconcerting little belly dance. But at the core of the evening is Alan Howard, who sustains his magnetism throughout the immensely long role of Oedipus himself with barely a hiccup, despite having broken his wrist in rehearsal last Thursday.

As he grew through the two plays from confused mortal on auto-destruct to enduring Freudian metaphor, even the chirruping crickets fell quiet and the cameras of the mainly Greek audience stopped their clicking. Unlike the self-conscious heckling of the groundlings at the Globe this almost religious absorption in the cradle of Western drama had the silence of true authenticity.

John Whitley

Daily Telegraph, 2.9.96.

Back to Oedipus page