Oedipus Rex

Belvoir Downstairs, August 21 

oedipus res
Andrea Demetriades and Peter Carroll. Photo: Pia Johnson.

Director Adena Jacobs calls this “a meditation upon the myth of Oedipus Rex”. Not the Sophocles play of that name, you’ll note, but the myth that supplied Sophocles’ raw material. In a way she strips Oedipus of the trappings of his play, and re-mythologises him as the embodiment of suffering: a pre-Christ Christ who could not avoid his doom, and yet had done nothing to deserve it.

A familiarity with Oedipus Rex and its sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, will certainly aid in understanding Jacobs’ intentions and in detonating the many intended resonances. Yet I suspect this 65-minute play of few words would still hum loudly in the ears of one entirely ignorant of Greek theatre. Its imagery would still shriek of a man whose life is unendurable, but for whom death is a premature release from a guilt for which no amount of suffering will ever be an adequate cleanser.

Jacobs acknowledges the collaboration of Peter Carroll (Oedipus), Andrea Demetriades (his daughter, Antigone), Paul Jackson (designer/dramaturg) and Max Lyandvert (composer/sound designer) in creating the piece. It begins with a long, long, silent blackout that plunges us into Oedipus’s sightless world; a world of bare survival and intolerable memories.

Carroll offers a gripping and bravely vulnerable performance that makes extant Oedipus’s searing pain. He is a man interminably falling into a loveless, godless, meaningless chasm, but with no longed-for bottom to shatter his unloved body. Demetriades’ Antigone is by turns practical, caring, teasing and cruel. How can she forgive a father who is also her half-brother if he cannot forgive himself?

Sometimes the symbolism is too self-conscious and weighs upon the play, or even undermines its soul-gouging impact. Yet the work feels strongest the more ritualistic it is, because this is not the ritualism of detachment but of empathy and embodiment.

Lyandvert’s contribution includes a first blast of music containing such shuddering bass frequencies that the seating vibrated. If we didn’t already know that Oedipus was terrified we did then.

Until September 14.