Alan Howard was not immune to the curse of Thebes. He fell off the stage and broke his wrist

To adapt the words of a song by Baddiel and Skinner, theatre's coming home. Or was, last weekend in Epidaurus, the ever astounding stone arena carved on a hillside in the heart of of a forest two hour's drive from Athens. The Royal National Theatre opened its production by Peter Hall - his first for the company since 1988 - of The Oedipus Plays (Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus) by Sophocles in a new translation by Ranjit Bolt; the show joined the RNT repertoire in the Olivier last night.

Whatever the realities of performance in the ancient theatres, tales of terror and revelation told to a huge audience under the open skies certainly carried a civic connotation unavailable to us today. That is why Hall's love affair with Epidaurus transcends the camp, or antiquarian. Greek drama, he believes, must be contextualised again within its optimum conditions. As at the new Globe on Bankside, there is a palpable sense of communion between the raw elements of actor, text, open air and audience. This regenerates great drama and renews its participants.

Thus Alan Howard's majestic, silver-tongued Oedipus, masked and swaying slowly, came out of the distant trees - huge clumps of broccoli transfigured in the violet haze of deepening night - along a fifty-yard platform extending into the plague-ridden city of Thebes. Fire burned in 10 oil drums that defined the circle of action. Ten thousand people held their breath.

Who killed the king and brought this curse on Thebes? Oedipus learns the worst and, as he does, the fires are gradually extinguished; until, at the point of his own blindness - 'the blood came not drop by drop but in a shower like rain' - the final drums are parched and quiet again. The production danced towards this terrible climax with a compelling, dreadful rhythm. The chorus - containing distinctive voices such as those of Jennie Stoller, Jeffery Kissoon and Peter Gordon - heaved and gesticulated in awesome unison, all masked, tongues flickering in the mouth-pieces, each 'persona' (the meaning of mask) still struck with his own curious and appalled identity.

Greg Hicks's crustaceous blind prophet Tiresias, led on a chain by a tiny duplicate of himself, ground out his bad news with a pelvic undulation, a crown of thorns clamped to his cow's skull mask. Two tiny daughters - Ismene and Antigone - would lead their desperate father away to Colonus, and we reassembled, after a decent interval, in distant Attica to witness the apotheosis.

Bolt's translation is a fair and decent piece of work, a mix of iambic pentameters (mainly) and hexameters, with some crushing banalities but the compensating virtues of clarity and pace. This is not a text to savour - as was Tony Harrison's for Hall's great Oresteia by Aeschylus at the National in 1981, his previous epic in this comparable vein - but it does do justice to the Sophoclean sweep and direct poetics.

Howard's voice soared and cleaved the night air with a thrilling virtuosity that will have to be tuned down, alas, in the Olivier (a theatre conceived in the spirit of Epidaurus). The actor himself was not immune to the curse of Thebes, falling off the stage at the Greek dress rehearsal and breaking his wrist. (NB Alan, a little more care next time; 'Oidipous' means swollen foot, not broken wrist.) His tenor, trumpet-tongued against adversity, flattened out in the sacred grove, where the platform, and oil drums, were now of shining ornamental steel, the chorus converted from black-garbed, plague-infested citizens to white-robed, gently ululating acolytes and priestesses.

Pip Donaghy managed to sustain his line of devious impatience as Creon, while Greg Hicks, his innate cussedness magnificently displayed, came sliding on, thighs tremulous with repentance and demands, as Polynices ('Poly-thighses'?), son of Oedipus.

The battle of these voices was enhanced by the open air, and the scale of relationship between actor and audience created an echo chamber that could absorb the most grotesque delivery and most vivid colouration. The perfect acoustic reverberated with the actor's voice, magically microphoned through his mask, an important property in the theatres of Greece and Rome.

Howard's vowels became more elongated as Oedipus awaited death and the sky was shattered with the thunder of Zeus, an electric storm typical of the vicinity and acquiring an intensity quite separate from its technological derivation. Suzanne Bertish (a powerful Jocasta in the first play) took the platform as the Messenger recounting the blind and banished hero's assumption by the gods. The evening closed on a great peaceful exhalation, a sense of wonder and elemental calm of the sort you read about but rarely experience in the living theatre. A triumph.

Michael Coveney

Observer, 8.9.96


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