Our Cambridge Greek Play publicity continues with a preview of the show, to give you a little bit of an idea of what to expect.
The Cambridge Greek Play is a longstanding institution of ancient Greek tragedies, comedies and all that falls between, taking place every three years since all the way back to 1882.
Digging through the online archives of the Cambridge Greek Play, I found four productions of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (the 1887 production was reviewed by the Daily Telegraph, no less!), the first of the Theban plays, and three productions of Antigone, the third – the most recent production taking place in 2016, paired with Lysistrata to lighten the tragic load. The middle Theban play, Oedipus at Colonus, has only been performed once before in the Greek Play tradition, in 1950. That production was considered terribly modern, as it was the first of the Cambridge Greek Plays to include multiple female actors in its cast.
But 2019’s production brings us even more firmly into the present day, with a stage comprised of a hospital bed surrounded by a ring of light, outside of which stretches a semicircle of microphones. Above the stage looms a giant operating room lamp, its light illuminating everything with that familiar hospital glare. You can almost smell the disinfectant.
Oedipus, who is played by the incredible Rosie Sida (who, reports tell, is shaving her head for the role) will lie in his hospital bed, linked up to drips and wires and a heart monitor. This is his deathbed, and he waits to die. The most philosophical of Sophocles’ three plays, it is a play that considers mortality itself, as well as discussing whether Oedipus is morally responsible for his reprehensible acts in the previous play, Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannus, which leads to him scratching out his own eyes. As such, the Oedipus that sits in his hospital bed at Colonus is blind, elderly and infirm, with the weight of his impending death heavy upon him and all those that surround him. There was a prophecy made that the site of his death would be blessed, and so he wants his resting place to be Colonus, in order that Theseus might receive that blessing. Creon, ruler of his former home of Thebes, wants that blessing to go to Thebes, which is what produces the main action of this play; it is more of a philosophical deliberation upon death than an action-packed tragedy.
I spoke to assistant set designer Tim Otto, who worked alongside set designer Jemima Robinson to create the futuristic set that is so anachronistically at odds with the Ancient Greek that fills his stage, about the intentions of the stage design. He said that the design team had deliberately created a stark, brutal space that exposes and focuses upon Oedipus at the same time. The chorus are separated, and yet remain onstage, with the circular boundary that raises them above the central area of the stage. Given that the the play is all about boundaries and trespassing, they wanted to highlight that in such a way that works for modern audiences, and for the technological requirements of the show itself.
Certainly, sat in the rehearsal room, I couldn’t help but notice that the circles place Oedipus in the centre of the stage, just as he is the centre of the play and of our attention. The chorus make up a semi-circle around him, with microphones before them so that they might create all the soundtrack and soundscape of the play, their voices mixed live by sound technician Xavier Velastin.
Rosie Sida has a brilliantly commanding presence, and so all that enter Oedipus’s central circle must have the energy to match – and they do. This was one of the most powerful runthroughs that I have ever sat through; at times, I felt I was almost sitting too close, such was the intensity of the performance before me. The vulnerability of Vee Tames’ Ismene and Sara Hazemi’s Antigone is palpable, while the three focal men of the play, Oedipus, Creon and Theseus absolutely match one another for power and presence onstage.
Director Daniel Goldman, with whom we published an interview, has attributed his main source of inspiration to the visit of Chilean dictator Pinochet to the UK in 1998, and his treatment in hospital. Reviled in the same way as Oedipus is in the play, he wanted to explore the moral intricacies of providing that medical treatment, or, in the play, Oedipus’s wish to die in a way that is ultimately beneficial to others, rather than causing the suffering he feels he has caused in his life. There are also parallels between the two as exiles; ultimately, Oedipus, unlike Pinochet, is redeemed by Theseus’ actions – and the play’s discussion of his own moral responsibility sets up an entirely different dynamic.
The intermingling sympathy and revulsion of the strangers that make up the chorus is also key to an audience’s understanding of how we might like to feel about Oedipus. Ultimately, he is not at fault for his past actions of marrying his mother and killing his father, but the chorus – and the audience – cannot help but be disgusted by them nonetheless. This is a chorus that functions both in the normal fashion of a chorus (in that they spend the whole play onstage) and is made separate and distinct by the raised stage upon which they stand, motionless behind microphones, when in the role of observer; when they move into centre stage, surrounding Oedipus’ hospital bed, it is more than a little terrifying.
This is an incredibly ambitious production, which is usually a word meant to describe a show that tries to do something incredible and fails – for 2019’s Cambridge Greek Play, those ambitions are met. This show has been a year in the making, and it shows: everything is polished, finessed, and sharp-edged. It is harsh, at times even painful to watch; at Oedipus’ cursing of his son Polyneikes, who initially exiled him, I had to physically look away. But the Greek is beautifully pronounced, its actors haunting in grief and rage and joy – Alex Silverman’s composition of the chorus’ many songs is perfection – and every moment feels deliberate, choreographed, and yet utterly natural.
By the way – if you don’t speak Greek, don’t worry. It’s surtitled.
Oedipus at Colonus runs from Wednesday 16th to Saturday 19th, with both matinee and evening performances, at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.