Kirese Narinesingh reviews Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex, the UCL Classical Play 2019.
I cannot deny that before I saw this production of Oedipus Rex, I was apprehensive. To properly dramatise Sophocles’ infamous play is no easy task, and one certainly unfit for the weak-hearted. In the first place, we have, of course, the chilling subject matter: the destiny of the tragic hero, Oedipus, in his gradual realisation of his irreversible fate, entangled with incest and murder. The play is also demanding of the dramatic performances of its cast, as well as the seamless coalescence of the spectacular horror and subtly amusing entertainment value of the plot, that which slowly gains in its affective quality, creeping up on us, until the climactic revelation and denouement.
But neither can I deny, having watched it, that I was more than pleasantly surprised by the effort made by this production. By its obvious dedication to enacting the dramatic irony that propels the play, and its awareness of the transgressions committed by the characters that the audience is forced to face, while Oedipus is slowly driven mad in confronting these moral deviances.
I was impressed by the play’s emotional resonance, helped by the costuming, lighting and sound effects that impressively heightened the spectacle of horror and the eerie, foreboding sensation that accompanied the unravelling of events. Though, in my opinion, the play did not fully justify the modernist context as a particularly relevant feature that would shed light on or amplify the play’s proceedings.
There is no denying, also, that Oedipus Rex is practically a male-centric play, but the incorporation of the all-female chorus was an apt addition to balance the cast, and supplements the dramatic tension of each scene with a pervading mood of the uncanny that recalls the emotionally poignant, tension-building scenes. We are never allowed to forget that this is a play of murder, of incest and the consequences of these sins that resemble an act of purging; blood for blood, as we see in the bright-red lighting and spectral music accompanying the chorus.
Yet I make the mistake of implying that the play’s value is solely contingent upon this near-surrealistic, explosive drama. Let me assure you, the play does not sink into its own dramatic power and consume itself in its own tragedy. Rather, it saves itself from complete despair through the sheer captivating nature of the dramatic irony, which keeps you at the edge of your seat, tantalisingly holding off until the final climax, leaving us shockingly amused and chilled at Oedipus’ downfall, which is rendered so memorably through the recitation of the language, and the affective performance of Luke Duncan. In addition, I can neither exclude the welcome comedic performance by Miles Blanch’s Messenger, who, in fact, momentarily steals the spotlight, as well as the perfectly cast Maciej Manka and Klara Grapci as Creon and Jocasta.
Oedipus Rex is haunting in that it is engrossing in spite of the characters’ gradual descent into madness, because, simply put, it is entertaining. The moral transgressions of Oedipus, in spite of our disgust, entertain us because of the cathartic fascination we derive in seeing his tragic decline. It makes us access so many contrasting emotions of pity and amusement and may even leave us confused, or, at least, simultaneously reflective. That is precisely the triumph of the play.