In Berkoff’s telling of Sophocles’ ancient tragedy, Oedipus is more than an individual’s Freudian slip – it is the story of a leader’s responsibility to his people, the demise of his authority over them and the fate of a family cursed throughout time.
From the moment the chorus appear, grouped around Oedipus at the table like da Vinci’s apostles, they form a symbolic and stylised core. Berkoff’s direction has the chorus animating the tragedy with exaggerated movement and mime that create strong tableaux, greatly enhanced by Mike Robertson’s lighting which casts harsh shadows over the chorus’ sharp shapes. From their incessant physicality to the skilled mask work, the chorus alone feels like a masterclass in direction and performance; however, as this production drags on, the repetition of the movement becomes tired and no longer capable of injecting the action with the necessary spectacle. This would not present such a problem if the rest of the production lived up to the chorus’ strong example, but frustratingly it falls far short.
In contrast to the chorus clothed in utilitarian flat caps and waistcoats, Simon Merrells is a slick geezer with a sharp suit and piercing eyes that hint at a brutality behind benevolent statesmanship. Oedipus sets out to do justice to the former King, Laius, whose unpunished murder has brought a plague to Thebes. In the opening scenes Merrels strikes a strong rapport with his chorus of elders, feigning an appearance of being one of the lads whilst retaining a clear authority. Yet as the truths about Oedipus’ parentage and past are revealed, finding the murderer become an issue of deeply personal discovery, a quietly psychotic determination etched on the King’s face as he interrogates the shepherd who knew him as an unfortunate infant.
However throughout it all this Oedipus is infuriatingly obtuse, his imperceptible descent from confidence to catastrophe failing to illicit anything in the way of pity or catharsis. Likewise, Anita Dobson is a glamorous, haunted figure of Jocasta, creating a mythical image as she glides about the stage with arms aloft, but lacking the essential emotional depth. Her mimed death is a glimmer in a superficial performance that fails to inspire sympathy or recognition.
More engaging is Matthew Cullum’s Creon (standing in for Berkoff in the role). Not only does Creon’s arrival mercifully propel the action forward, but Cullum introduces a degree of amusement as he sashays across the stage, delivering the oracle’s news to Oedipus in Berkoff’s straight-talking, but barely hard-hitting, modern tongue. When Oedipus later confronts his brother-in-law for having bribed the prophet Tiresias, Merrells and Cullum capture the tension between these two very different leaders, squaring up to one another menacingly in a rare show of chemistry between the play’s leads.
There is no question that technically this is a highly accomplished production, yet the glimpses of Berkoff’s greatness as a playwright and director do not compensate for a lack of emotional engagement that fails to deliver on the piece’s potential.