Royal National Theatre
3 January 2009
No gimmicks required!
After seeing seven pantos this season, and getting swept along by their unending cheeriness, the National Theatre’s production of Sophocles Oedipus was quite an antidote. Cheery it most certainly isn’t, but absorbing, emotional, tragic and generally fulfilling as a piece of theatre, it most certainly is!
There is a wonderful bitter sweet feeling of tragic inevitability. Bitter because the characters are heading towards their own destruction and there is nothing they, nor us, can do about it. And sweet because its content and structure is a perfect example of true dramatic tragedy.
Much of the success of Jonathan Kent’s production, as it is with any production of such a classic, is dependent on the performance of the tragic hero and Ralph Fiennes is a superb Oedipus. His disdainful arrogance at the start is brilliantly contrasted by his crumbling to a mere husk of a man as he slowly realises where he has come from and what it means.
No one stares quite so well as Fiennes – he literally looks right through to your soul. His eyes have always been amazing (remember Quiz Show!) it’s a real shame that he has to gauge them out in this!
Clare Higgins, as usual, is also outstanding as his ill-fated wife slash mother and her collapse as she recalls the horrors of her past is heart wrenching.
The chorus are a darkly and contemporarily dressed troupe who also often break into song, but not in a “let’s all sing a song about this” musical theatre way, but in tunes, created by Jonathan Dove, that enhance and contribute to the atmosphere.
I also loved the starkness and simplicity of Paul Brown’s set which meant that your attention wasn’t taken up by effects and extravagance, you just have to concentrate on the words. And in doing so, after 90 minutes straight through, you feel both exhausted and exhilarated.
It is a wonderful contrast not only to the lavishness, sparkle and glitz of panto but also to many other productions of the moment who need gimmicks, effects and lavish sets to draw people in.
If you just put on good plays with great actors you don’t need to mess about – and the full theatre at the National after a credit crunch Christmas proved it!