Black carpet. A single chair. A wall made from wooden frames covered in plastic sheeting. Harsh fluorescent light.
Lights up slowly on a man sitting on the chair, blindfolded. He wears an oxygen mask, his breathing laboured, rasping; catching. Slow, sometimes painfully loud. A long beat.
The man stands on the chair, his singlet over his head, screaming wordlessly like a Bacon pope into the void.
Suddenly from nowhere, the sound of a hurricane envelopes us, total, all-consuming; a great sonic roar of wind and fury and anger. Like a plane crashing over our heads, like a building collapsing, like a world falling apart. The man stands on the chair, naked in the dim light, chanting wordlessly.
The lights snap to full, the fluorescence blinding, cruel. The man stands on the chair, naked; ashamed. Alone and suddenly very small. A woman enters the space carrying a large and somewhat heavy bag and proceeds to wash the man from a tub of warm water. He tries to retain his dignity, but in the small intimate Downstairs theatre, it’s not entirely possible.
Adena Jacobs’ Oedipus Rex, like Nora currently playing in the Upstairs theatre, “begins where the play ends.” We are told it is “a meditation on the myth of Oedipus, and the notion of suffering itself,” but perhaps it’s not so much a meditation but a very real exploration into just how much can an actor and an audience can suffer in a relatively short space of time. It is, without a doubt, the single longest and most excruciating hour of theatre I have ever seen.
No one sets out to make a ‘bad’ piece of theatre, just as no one likes writing an unfavourable review of any show. But forgive me if this play seems juvenile, self-indulgent and pretentious, like something a university group would (ironically) produce after digesting a lot of performance theory. Except this is not an ironic production. This Oedipus suffers from a fundamental dramaturgical confusion – what is the story being told? Is there even a story being told, or is it a series of vignettes, seemingly unconnected, which coalesce to create a bigger picture somewhere? This is the third production I’ve seen from Jacobs, one of Belvoir’s Resident Directors, and as with Hedda Gabler and Persona – as with THE RABBLE’s Cain and Abel (in the same space barely three months ago) – there is something deeply distancing and alienating in this production, a void which stops us, the audience, from connecting with the work or even coming close.
Admittedly, the long blackout at the beginning of the play is extremely effective in unsettling the audience, catching us off guard so we don’t know what to expect. It is claustrophobic to the point of suffocating; like Oedipus himself, we are effectively blind until the lights rise dimly on the man in the chair. There is a sculptural feel to this first sequence, like something Francis Bacon could have painted if he was working alongside Rembrandt in the early 1600s, but that soon gives way to a more experimental and incoherent sense of discombobulation.
Perhaps we are in a strange dystopian aged-care facility – perhaps it doesn’t even matter where we are – but the bulk of Jacobs’ production sees Peter Carroll’s old-man Oedipus, blind and somewhat disconsolate, stuck in a cruel Godot-esque holding pattern, stuck in an endless sequence of sadistic games alongside his (not-blind) daughter, Antigone (who, for all appearances, could be his anyone; his carer, or even enslaver.) For Jacobs, “Oedipus is the embodiment of suffering,” and perhaps he is, but here I couldn’t help but feel that unfortunately it is Carroll who suffers more than Oedipus. The sadistic sense of play which sits at the heart of this Oedipus is only amplified when Antigone tries to get Oedipus to play ‘I spy…,’ or when she tasks him with building a tower out of Cuisenaire rods and she wins, able to create the tallest tower; or when she gives him a teddy bear and he tries to rip its eyes out; or when they play hide and seek, and she sits amongst the audience…
Andrea Demetriades – a strong actor in any other role – seems superfluous as Antigone. While she does bring a kind of gravitas to her performance, just as Carroll does to his, she doesn’t really feel a part of the show’s world at all, but rather an outsider, an interloper. This Oedipus Rex feels very much like a one-man show, the kind of Fringe festival show a group of twenty-somethings with nothing to lose might produce; not the work of one of the most respected and loved theatre companies in the country.
If, as Jacobs believes, “we are all blind,” then don’t the blind have heightened senses? Weren’t the blind often the seers and prophets in the days of myth, the ones who could see further than normal mortals? This Oedipus is not a “poem,” nor is it “a code of symbols,” as we are told in the Director’s Notes. It is “an embodiment of guilt and abjection… [it] exists so that we, the audience, don’t have to gouge out our own eyes.” In fact, gouging my eyes out might have been preferable to watching this. I don’t think this is anywhere near the “lament [and] powerful expression of tragedy” we were promised a year ago, nor is it particularly “immersive.” If anything, it is alienating rather than immersive. Jacobs states that we, as an audience, “have a great responsibility [...] We bear witness. We are complicit. Why aren’t we intervening?” Indeed. Why aren’t we intervening and asking what is this; why aren’t we asking if this is what we should be seeing on our main-stages; why aren’t we asking why this was given precedent over a (potentially) new Australian play by an emerging writer? Audiences have a responsibility certainly, but so do theatre-makers – a responsibility to their audiences, to respect them, to not patronise or insult them, to honour and play to their collective intelligence.
To quote Jacobs, “we feel ashamed at our own looking.”
Theatre playlist: 50. Kyrie, from Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs & Orchestra, Gyorgy Ligeti