Review: Oedipus Rex (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Aug 21 – Sep 21, 2014
Dramaturg: Paul Jackson
Director: Adena Jacobs
Cast: Peter Carroll, Andrea Demetriades
Image by Pia Johnson

Theatre review
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is a classic tragedy remembered for its themes of fate and incest. Adena Jacobs’ sequel is a vision haunted by a blind and elderly Oedipus in throes of despair, suffering a living hell. His daughter, and sister, Antigone is his carer and companion, but the play features little conversation and no writer is credited. It is poetic and visual theatre, with influence from installation and performance art. Designer Paul Jackson’s creation is a bare clinical space that evokes the cruel agony of hospitals and bureaucratic offices. Ugly false ceiling panels with strategically positioned fluorescent tubes and halogen bulbs provide spine-chilling illumination that emphasise the horrific existence of the man who had been king. The 70-minute experimental work owes more to the paintings of Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon than it does Greek stage traditions. Meaning is created through imagery and sound, with spoken languages taking a back seat. Max Lyandvert’s involvement as composer and sound designer is not always prominent but his efforts are tremendously affecting, and when he does take centre stage, there is no hesitation to grab us by our core to deliver moments of astonishment.

The abstraction in Jacobs’ piece allows for numerous interpretations but the detailed and confronting depiction of an old man under palliative care addresses our universal mortality. The presence and sight of veteran actor Peter Carroll’s bare flesh resonates deeply. Our bodies unite us, and his vulnerable thinness is a visceral reminder of every person’s imminent and inevitable deterioration. The play’s muted narrative opens up the ways in which we can relate to Oedipus. When we no longer see him only as a man with specific circumstances, we are able to recognise more intimately the pain he embodies, and his torment speaks to us all, for true suffering requires no context to connect.

Oedipus Rex is the tour de force of a remarkable actor. Carroll’s performance is powerful and mesmerising, with more depth than any audience can deplete. There is enough drama in every fibre of his being to render narratives gratuitous. His director’s wisdom has allowed the production to strip back on storytelling and rely instead on the actor’s charisma and skill to impress upon us, the essence and soul of this artistic triumph. Carroll’s work is fearless, authentic and assertive, with a sense of traditional Asian theatre forms that focus on the craft of performance itself, rather than using it as a vehicle for saying something else. In this case, we are utterly enthralled by the man on stage, but also aware of the text’s subliminal messages. Antigone is played by Andrea Demetriades who provides solid support. The chemistry between both actors is outstanding, and the palpable trust they have harnessed is the source of many instances of frisson that occur throughout this thoroughly fascinating show.

We indulge in tragic stories because there is an intense beauty that resides in the darkness that befalls the innocent. There is an understanding that bad things can happen to good people, and as much as we strive for goodness, what results may not always be guaranteed. Life is dangerous, because it is uncertain. The ambiguity and risk in Adena Jacobs’ work puts her art in a position that challenges her audience, as well as the state of art production in our communities. Theatre often becomes too predictable and too lazy, and we need agents provocateur like Jacobs and Oedipus Rex to keep it alive.