The mother of Greek tragedies
Olivier, National Theatre, London SE1
As rALPH Fiennes’s Oedpius tries to calm the fearful people of Thebes, you could be forgiven for mistaking him for a more modern, though equally emotionally remote leader attempting to rescue his people in a crisis.
ButcomparisonswithGordonBrown have to stop there. Despite Jonathan Kent’s production being mainly populated by men in suits who look like government ministers, when it comes to Greek tragedy you can go only go so far with modern relevance. What drives sophocles’s play, here translated by Frank McGuinness, is an ancient question — are we ruled by ourselves or by God?
“Apollo dances to see me suffer,” cries Fiennes’s Oedipus, his gouged eyes a self-inflicted punishment for his unintended crime of killing his father and marrying his mother. For most of its tense uninterrupted 100 minutes, Kent’s production moves inexorably and elegantly towards this unbearable moment of realisation. As the Olivier’s round stage slowly revolves, so the truth unravels. And when that moment comes, Fiennes’s Oedipus exhales a cry until his scream becomes silent.
even more painful to watch is his wife and mother Jocasta, played by a bullish Clare Higgins, who stands desolate at the realisation that her son is the father of her children. Before then, Alan Howard’s angry and blind prophet Teiresias portends the coming bleakness when he arrives led by a rope attached to his slave’s neck, just like Pozzo in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
ButtheeveningisinevitablyFiennes’s who embodies the truth that those who suffer most usually deserve it least. (Tel: 020 7452 3000)
The Young Vic, London SE1
LAsT yeAr young American Tarell Alvin McCraney made an astounding young Vic debut with The Brothers Size, his lyrical sibling play set in Louisiana.
McCraney uses Nigerian yoruba traditions to tell American stories. His latest offering, which is in fact the prequel to the The Brothers Size, depicts Louisiana’s post-Hurricane Katrina floodplain by turning the young Vic’s main auditorium into what looks like a circular swimming pool. yet when, in Walter Meierjohann’s beautifully performed and bravely staged production, the cast splash into their performances, the wa- ter is revealed to be only ankle-deep.
The focus here is on Oya (Ony Uhiara) an athlete who refuses a scholarship from the state university to stay with her ill mother. It is a decision that keeps her locked into the poverty that traps an entire community, where having a baby is the only alternative to doing nothing. And so Oya is left desolate when neither Ashley Walter’s swaggering shango and Javone Prince’s homely Ogun manage to impregnate her.
Much of what made The Brothers Size so triumphant is present here, notably the wit and affection that is becoming McCraney’s trademark, and that the cast speak their own stage directions, which gives the sense of a story being told as well as acted.
Following an encouraging first act, the plotting fizzles out in the second act. still, McCraney, who has been adopted by the rsC as its international playwright in residence, is clearly fulfilling the promise of a huge talent. (Tel: 020 7922 2922)
New End Theatre, London NW3
yOUDON’ThavetobeFreudtoguess that a persecuted, Jewish, gay, ventriloquist might benefit from analysis. In this one-man two-hander, written and performed by south African Graeme Messer, therapy has come a little late for Holocaust survivor Nathan. On his 100th birthday, he has returned from the dead to rake over the past with his alter ego Otto, the eerie ventriloquist’s doll who partnered him in a cabaret act before being separated from his owner when Nathan was sent to a concentration camp. Otto, meanwhile, was pressed into service entertaining Nazis — though not on his own, obviously.
It is hard to shake the sense the play and Chrys salt’s production exists more to provide a vehicle for Messer’s particular talents and preoccupations than to tell the story of entertainers trapped by the Holocaust. Otto and Nathan are the classic dominant doll/submissive human case study. In just 60 minutes Messer’s themes are not fully explored, but in the quick-fire exchanges he tells Nathan’s and Otto’s story with a great deal of skill, and for the most part without moving his lips. (Tel: 0870 033 2733)
Clare Higgins discovers the awful truth about her husband Ralph Fiennes in the National’s staging of Oedipus