It’s chilly in the King’s Theatre. There’s a thin line of shadow cutting precisely through the centre of Hildegard Bechtler’s cavernous campaign office design. Natasha Chiver’s lights are cool and stark, throwing up the craggy edges of Hans Kesting’s face as he peers into a silvery mirror.
Rob Icke’s adaptation is as lean and streamlined and satisfying as pulling a thick seam of white fat off a piece of meat. He slides us sleekly on a downwards trajectory that gains and gains in velocity, aided by a violently red countdown clock. The dialogue is clean and condensed, sharp as distilled spring water. It’s a sly modernisation, so we are plunged into a strange, purgatorial campaign HQ on election night, Bechtler’s design getting dismantled by workmen as Oedipus’s once-solid self gets stripped away like old paint. Kesting is on fine form, tender and flawed, leonine figure slouching around the stage, more often than not curled into himself or into Jocasta (Marieke Heebink) or his children, only occasionally roaring up to his full height like a bear pulling itself onto its hind legs.
“Tragedy is about the specifics” reads one of my scrawled notes, and Icke’s production is chock full of the minutiae. Oedipus is a precise tragedy – it’s a litany of revelations, each revealed at exactly the right (wrong) moment, stacking on top of each other until the tower inevitably begins to tumble. Icke makes absolutely sure that each thread tightly plaits into the next, the onstage images utterly exacting, certain phrases echoing over the stage. “I am me. I am me,” Oedipus states at the start of the play. “I know who I am.” Words, so solid and reliable and easy for him initially, begin to dissolve, culminating in a void-like silence when he finally discovers the truth. It’s like the air has been sucked out of the stage. When he and Jocasta have a quickie on the carpet, Kesting’s mouth latches onto Heebink’s breast and suckles there. When he discovers that she is his mother, he coils slowly into the foetal position. “Ah yes – very good,” I thought throughout. “I see what you did there.” It feels slightly like being in a university seminar with the smartest person in your year. And yes, there is a certain thrill to catching up with this unbelievably assured production, to joining the dots, to understanding the text far better when I came out than when I first came in. But I could really feel the cerebral, clinical calculations being made, spiking their way out of the piece, to the extent that my first reaction to what was happening onstage was “Oh, that’s clever,” rather than “Fuck me, this is devastating.” This Oedipus is fact before feeling, and I increasingly felt the disconnect. “[Icke] hasn’t figured out a way to make the cerebral collide with the visceral,” the friend I saw it with messaged me afterwards. It’s true. They seem to exist on two separate planes, never enmeshed in the way that they should be.
But it’s odd, because part of me was still pulled along with it, because this is a Greek tragedy, and I could feel my body and those around me reacting instinctively – there were people emitting small gasps, twisting their hands into their laps, peering out from behind splayed fingers. And there are flashes of keen devastation, for sure, particularly in Heebink’s Jocasta, whose story is expansively fleshed out by Icke and who brims and blisters with love and pain. When she realises what she’s done, she retches instinctively, before attempting to grasp for the words. “That’s how this show should feel,” I thought.
Oedipus is on at King’s Theatre as part of EIF, 14th-17th August 2019. More info and tickets here.