Page last updated at 08:49 GMT, Thursday, 16 October 2008 09:49 UK

Review: Ralph Fiennes in Oedipus

Ralph Fiennes as Oedipus (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Fiennes was nominated for a Tony award in 2006

By Tim Masters
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Ralph Fiennes plays Oedipus in a new version of Sophocles' tragedy, adapted by Frank McGuiness for the National Theatre.

For a play that has been around since 430 BC - and one with such a familiar plot - Sophocles' Oedipus has lost none of its shock value.

In Jonathan Kent's production at the Olivier, there is a curious mixture of ancient and modern - and of course, horror.

Often regarded as a perfect example of Greek tragedy, the play begins with the people of Thebes looking to their king Oedipus to lift a curse on the city.

He discovers from the Oracle that the murderer of the previous king must be rooted out. And within the space of a day, he moves inexorably towards his own undoing.


Ralph Fiennes is an impressive Oedipus. He first appears through the huge double doors of his palace in a sharp suit, brimming with confidence.

Within 90 minutes he has transformed into different creature, howling and blood-spattered. It is more terrible and terrifying to behold than his big-screen Voldemort.

The stage beyond the palace doors is austere, with only a long picnic bench where the chorus of dark-suited men of Thebes congregate and sing like a male voice choir.

The early exchanges between Oedipus and the chorus reveal how well Frank McGuiness has adapted this ancient text for a modern audience. The language is lean and powerful.

Clare Higgins as Jocasta (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Clare Higgins plays Jocasta in the production

"Women give birth to buckets of blood," an old man tells Oedipus, describing the effects of the curse on the city.

"I rule the roost here," Oedipus reminds the chorus, just before things start to go wrong.

Almost imperceptibly, the circular stage rotates throughout much of the play, as if to mirror the slow movement of destiny that underpins the plot.

There are strong performances elsewhere. Alan Howard makes a memorable blind prophet Teiresias, made all the more mad by his crumpled linen suit, socks and sandals.

And Clare Higgins is perfect as Jocasta. Her body language with Fiennes deftly switches between that of wife and mother: one minute they are kissing like lovers, the next she cradles his head in her lap like a sick child.

For a play so full of murder, incest, suicide and self-mutilation, there are occasional laughs to be had. Not least when the shaven-headed Fiennes says the fear of the prophecies is making his hair stand on end.

This is a play that regularly makes the hair rise and the spine tingle. And the last few minutes are as powerful and cathartic as they must have been for audiences more than two thousand years ago.

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