January 20, 2014 3:42 pm

Oedipus Retold, Tristan Bates Theatre, London – review

Jeremy Kingston’s double bill offers two very different takes on the Oedipus myth
Jack Klaff in 'Oedipus Retold'

Jack Klaff in 'Oedipus Retold'

The city of Thebes is putrefying. Cows give birth to dead calves, fruit withers, babies perish. Why? Because King Oedipus slew Daddy and married Mummy and the god Apollo is wrathful.

Oedipus does his dirty deeds unwittingly, of course – he tries to escape his fate. To no avail: the oracle has spoken. When the penny drops, the queen hangs herself and her son jabs pins in his eyes. Is there a moral? Humans are “nought” and the immortals will have their sport no matter what you do. It’s a horror story without any glimmers of light – but that doesn’t make it implausible. Inspired by Sophocles, here is Oedipus the King, part one of Jeremy Kingston’s double bill, Oedipus Retold.

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Oedipus at the Crossroads is Kingston’s alternative take on events. Here, the young Oedipus chats with his perverted Papa (old silver-locks likes slim-hipped boys) instead of killing him, and they plot to outwit the oracle. Kingston’s parallel world is not conducted by the whims of psychotic gods, but by creepy, conspiratorial men. It makes more rational sense than the original and to a boring part of the mortal mind this is faintly appealing. At a deeper level, it feels false. The style is light: it’s a jeu d’esprit – witty in places, rhythmically slack and not that funny.

Both plays are fluent and studded with poetry; both feel long. Faye Bradley’s design includes a red, dead, wind-bent tree, two velvet chairs, a giant thumb print and 156 illuminated masks. It’s not easy to decipher what Bradley is up to, but the images are striking.

The acting oscillates. While Tom Shepherd is a considered, no-frills Oedipus, the honey-toned Jack Klaff is a Kreon prone to enormous bombast. Clare Cameron’s report of how the king finds his mother/mate hanging, “turning”, is given with depth and simplicity.

An odd night, then, the first part richer and better performed than the second. Kingston, who is not young, wrote Oedipus the King recently and you can tell – it feels lived in. Oedipus at the Crossroads, by contrast, was written in the 1970s – the work of a younger man with more wit than feeling, maybe.


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