“I am me. I am me,” declares Oedipus. But the truth is that Oedipus—a compelling Hans Kesting—doesn’t know who he is in Robert Icke’s startlingly contemporary and razor-sharp version of Sophocles. It’s as if Icke has taken a knife to the original and excavated its glistening heart so we can see it in all its pumping glory.
It starts with a film of Oedipus, a modern politician, on the verge of a great victory. He is going to clean up the country which is sick with corruption. The election result is not yet in, but there is a real sense that this man is the right one for the job, the chosen one. He is, but not in the way he thinks. His throwaway promise that he will investigate the death of the former ruler Laius will come back to haunt him before the night is over. I don’t think I have ever felt quite such a sickening sense of rising dread in the theatre.
Over the next two hours as the on-stage digital clock ticks down Oedipus moves from saying “I am me” to not knowing who he is and becoming obsessed with knowing who he is. He journeys from a man who thinks he is at the start of something to a man who realises that he is at the endgame. As the evening progresses, the space—Oedipus’ campaign office (designer, Hildegard Bechtler)—is gradually dismantled around the characters.
This is so niftily done, with an almost insouciantly low-key but effective stagecraft and layered scripting. Just as Oedipus’ throw away promise comes back to bite, so too do many of the exchanges between the characters. Antigone (Gaite Jansen) worries about losing her identity to her dad’s political status, and we can see in this young teenager the woman she will become. We know too how Oedipus’ dismissal of Creon as mediocre and weak will play out in the next generation, and how the bickering between Oedipus’ two sons over a family chicken dinner—one of the production’s best scenes—will eventually erupt into war. Everything is just so, meticulous, but deceptively casual.
If that makes it sound as if it is too self-conscious, it is not. It is full of heart and psychological acuity. “I can’t lose him twice,” cries Jocasta towards the end, almost in the same moment as Oedipus calls out “Mum!” like a lost child. It is utterly truthful; completely devastating.
Oedipus, King’s Theatre, 14-17 Aug, times vary