Haunted Ralph in Fienne form

PUBLISHED: 11:57 06 November 2008 | UPDATED: 17:16 16 August 2010

A RESOUNDING performance of Oedipus at The National ensured a silence among the audience which grew deeper by the minute, writes Melody Foreman.

A RESOUNDING performance of Oedipus at The National ensured a silence among the audience which grew deeper by the minute, writes Melody Foreman.

Like the riddle this Greek hero solved to banish the sphinx from the gates of Thebes so did this production espouse the many brutal layers of human darkness.

Indeed, what walks on four legs in the morning, on two at midday, and on three in the evening? "Man," replied Sophocles' character who was cursed from the day he was born.

"Man crawls as an infant, walks upright as an adult, and uses a stick in old age."

Directed by Jonathan Kent and starring the intensely enigmatic Ralph Fiennes as Oedipus, the production proved to be the full on stupendous drama that plundered the mind and the soul.

Actor Fiennes' preparation for the role of the king who unwittingly killed his own father, married his own mother (Jocasta) and has children with her, included various sessions with a leading psychoanalyst. The daunting realisation who we are is never really what we are gets thrown up time and time again in this play as Oedipus reaches the ultimate crisis in his life that no amount of reasoning is going to explain.

It is during such crises of no answer and no return most of us turn to psychoanalysis. For Oedipus, his agonies are so public and the magnitude of his torture so great when uncovering the truth behind the myth of his birth that we watch Fiennes running about the stage like the possessed man he couldn't face becoming.

The production saw the cast of 28 in modern dress. The men of Thebes in sombre grey formed a chorus to admonish and support their champion as he questions his own worth and abilities to lead.

Oedipus wore a suit and tie at the start of the play, discarding the jacket and tie as his quest for the truth begins to suffocate him. His queen who also turns out to be his mother is Jocasta. She is played with the type of sophistication we can expect of an actress of Clare Higgins' experience. Her approach to the role was sympathetic even though the character was apt to go into denial over Oedipus' much ranted suspicions over his parentage and the brutally truthful suggestion Jocasta and her then husband (his father) the King of Thebes gave him away at birth.

Acted out on a slowly revolving stage with a huge two pillared doorway designed by Paul Brown, there was some beautiful uses of Neil Austin's creative lighting effects that gave us bare spindly trees on a background of white during any significant change of atmosphere.

When the famous moment came for Oedipus to declare he wanted a life of darkness he goes off stage. Seconds later we are told by one of his advisors how Jocasta is dead and Oedipus, their hero of a king who once slain the meddlesome sphinx, has stabbed out his own eyes with the pins on the brooches from Jocasta's dress.

Blood soaked and stained and curled up foetal-like centre stage, Oedipus calls for his children and declares his daughters have also been cursed because of his own terrible fate.

Big, bold and dramatic, this ninety minute long production of Oedipus must be seen.

* Oedipus is at the National Theatre until January 4.

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