Reimagining the classic Greek tragedy for a common audience, Robert Icke brings Oedipus to the Edinburgh stage. Maggie Kelly reviews this modern piece of political commentary:

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired

Anton Chekhov

This age-old adage is followed pretty much to the letter in Robert Icke’s tight adaptation of the classic Greek monument Oedipus. It’s as dramatically clean and well-constructed as we have come to expect from the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroep Amsterdam), placing the well-worn family drama in a modern-day campaign office with a red digital clock ominously clicking the seconds away until the final denouement.

Oedipus King's Theatre
Marieke Heebink & Hans Kesting (image courtesy of Jan Versweyveld)

This clock teases us from the get-go – a glaring onstage acknowledgement that everyone knows exactly when this particular tale is destined to land. The drama can’t come from any surprising the plot twist, so it comes from that satisfying, slightly unpleasant wriggle in the stomach when watching people strive like ants against something bigger than they can control.

We’re confronted with ‘man of the people’ Oedipus (Hans Kesting), running for an unspecified leadership in an unspecified country, a man whose commitment to truth and justice makes him something of a folk hero. He sits down on the night of the big election with his advisor Creon (Aus Greidanus Jr.) and wife Jocasta (Marieke Heebink) and the whole party – mother, three kids, various members of staff all working on the campaign.

Oedipus King's Theatre
Hans Kesting & Marieke Heebink (image courtesy of Jan Versweyveld)

Icke’s Oedipus language just about toes the line between tragedy and kitchen-sink drama, playing with image-laden monologues but still committing to the naturalistic, real-time drive of the piece during family squabbles over a celebratory chicken dinner.

It is the entrance of Tiresias, and the delivery of the prophecy we all know so well where Icke’s vision suddenly unfastens. The introduction of an oracle – a character so noticeably ‘magic’ in a piece rooted in a political world we all understand and can connect with – hurtles us out of the world of matte white glass and right-angled sofas. The clock, rooting the play in a specific two hour time window, connecting us to the here and now, suddenly feels out of place. Otherwise, the transcription is performed with panache.

Oedipus King's Theatre
Eva Heijnen, Marieke Heebink & Hans Kesting (image courtesy of Jan Versweyveld)

Icke’s focus on the relationship between Oedipus and wife-mother Jocasta draws the tragedy out of a dust-ridden tale, convincing us of their love long before gleefully teasing us with their downfall.

★★★★☆

Oedipus played at King’s Theatre until 17 August 2019. For more information, please visit the festival website.