Authenticity is in fashion. First Shakespeare returns to the Globe, then Peter Hall takes Sophocles home to Greece. And if Sam Wanamaker spent 40 years trying to get Shakespeare's playhouse rebuilt, Hall's long-held ambition to stage The Oedipus Plays in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus proved scarcely less of a struggle. Hall has successfully put on Greek plays in Greece before, but this production, his first for the National since retiring as artistic director, ran up against so many obstacles (not least a ban on using flares that was lifted only at the eleventh hour) that it came close to not happening. And that would have been a tragedy.
In the event, last weekend's performance was tragic - but for the right reasons. Destinies don't get much worse than Oedipus's and here, in the open-air yet strangely claustrophobic space of Epidaurus, the enormity of his fate held an audience of 10,000 rapt. From high up the steeply raked stone terraces, the figures below look tiny; with their heavy, masked heads and outrageous fortune, they might be puppets whose strings are being pulled by spirits in the blue-black sky above.
In Dionysis Fotopoulos's starkly beautiful design, the plague-stricken Chorus moves around a brazier-lit, carcass-strewn circle of sand. As Oedipus the King, Alan Howard enters down a giant red catwalk; at the end of Oedipus at Colonus, he staggers up it to his death. In between, he must go the distance from confident kingship to terrible self-knowledge, finding out what we already know: that he has killed his father and married his mother.
Howard captures the dramatic irony wonderfully. Almost every line he delivers, in Ranjit Bolt's clear, colloquial rhyming couplets, makes us wince. When, early on, he says of the assassin of Laius, "I wish him pain and strife / May he lead a desolate life", we think, don't worry, Oedipus, you sure will. Howard's voice rings out in the perfect acoustic with a frightening timbre. His towering performance is well supported by Suzanne Bertish, a Jocasta with a whiff of Gertrude about her, Greg Hicks, a pervy, mud-caked Tiresias, and a mesmerising Chorus, earthly in the first play, ethereal in the second.
Hall's productions seem so at home here that it's hard to imagine them in London. But then the Olivier is a 20th-century replica of Epidaurus (with fire extinguishers).
Rosanna de Lisle
Independent On Sunday, 8.9.96