The National Theatre's epic adventure in taking on two of the most ancient plays in Western theatre, Sophocles's Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, back to one of their original 5th-century sites at Epidaurus in Greece did not get off to the easiest of starts last weekend.
Sir Peter Hall, in his first production for the National since his departure from the leadership of the company eight years ago, took his cast of 20 plus technicians across Europe only to have his star, Alan Howard, fall in rehearsal from the open-air stage's raised central platform and break a wrist, while local tempers were heated by a stage-centre circle of flaming braziers.
For some time now, at Epidaurus as at the new Shakespeare Globe in Southwark, the actors have been doing battle with the archaeologists; Greek authorities now wish to ban live performances of any kind and turn the site entirely over to the tourists, like the nearby tombs of Mycenae. Hall stood his ground, told the locals that without the braziers there would be no show, and pointed out that as the braziers were surrounded by nothing but stone and empty space it would be difficult to set fire to anything. The British Ambassador duly intervened with the Athens Minister of Culture, and with less than half an hour to go before the first of two public performances the plays duly went ahead.
They were little short of breathtaking: Alan Howard in the title role may not yet be able to 'pull down lightning from the sky' (as John Mason Brown famously said of the 1945 Olivier performance at the Vic), but his Oedipus has a haunted, haunting power which should be still more evident in close-up when the plays reach the stage of the Olivier Theatre in London next week. Like an ethereal ringmaster, half Prospero, half Oberon, he stands for much of the evening alone on his rostrum, there to hear the news that he has killed his father and married his mother.
Hall's cast and chorus address us out front virtually all the time, their masks and diction an amazing tribute to Hall's belief in the unchanging classical verities of staging the Greeks: as against that, Ranjit Bolt's new translation is sometimes uneasily colloquial, coming into its own in the much less familiar second play, Oedipus at Colonus, which has an almost Chekhovian intimacy after the Lear-like grandeur of the first tragedy. To see these plays on a 5th-century BC Greek theatrical site is a theatre-going experience I shall treasure for the rest of my life, and the logic of opening the plays there rather than on the South Bank is irrefutable, for what is the National's Olivier stage if not a very faint indoor reflection of Epidaurus itself?
In the semicircular majesty of the original site, 15,000 seats cut into a hillside where no sound of traffic or aeroplanes can interrupt the infinite stillness of the night and the surrounding countryside, every stage whisper can be heard at the back of a natural auditorium rising hundreds of steeply raked aisles into the cliff. This is, in so many ways, where it all began, but Hall has allowed echoes of other worlds, other traditions, other theatres to creep into his magnificently simple, searching production: the central platform suggests nothing so much as a Japanese hanamichi; the blind Tiresias enters dragged by a tiny child on a rope, for all the modern world like Pozzo entering Hall's first great 1955 production of Waiting for Godot.
So Beckett is here, and Shakespeare, and the utterly naked power of the greatest drama in the world: 'I am my wife's son,' says Oedipus in the line that says it all, 'and have killed the man I should not have killed.'
This is a vast ritual celebration of the gods in their infinite lack of mercy, and apart from one spectacular moment of thunder and lightning (provided here by the National rather than the Greek weather) this is a production unusually notable for its lack of any overt theatricality, all of which comes from the sense of a miracle mystery play whose awful heart of darkness is suddenly exposed.
Though never, od course, to the light of day: neither rehearsals nor performances at Epidaurus may begin until the last tourist bus has departed for Athens at 9 p.m.; paradoxically, therefore, the greatest open-air amphitheatre in the world, and certainly the only one in regular theatrical use, can only be seen by theatre-goers with the aid of the electric lights which seem to desecrate the space by their modernity. Audiences, at least the local ones, still eat and drink during performances as did their ancestors; only, again, the sudden glare of an electric light from a flash-gun reminds us that we have not drifted back several centuries to an almost religious and certainly festive occasion.
When, close to two in the morning, the actors of the National finally tore off their masks to the standing ovation of 10,000 people, there was no doubt that Oedipus had gone home in triumph and defiance and infinite tragedy: of those actors, perhaps only Greg Hicks as the blind Tiresias and Suzanne Bertish as Jocasta managed to come close to Alan Howard's weary magnificence. But this is not about individual performances, it's about the ability of a wide range of classical actors to adapt to the masks which simultaneously entrap and liberate them, and above all one of the great acting companies of the world to come to grips with the central, everlasting mystery of Oedipus.
The Spectator, 7.9.96.