Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Thebes, New Diorama Theatre

Review: Thebes, New Diorama Theatre

Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone have become Thebes as part of The Faction’s 2014 rep season. It’s a significant gearshift. Playwright Gareth Jandrell has made the city itself – or rather its people – his protagonist, a move that runs counter to the centrality of the hero in Ancient Greek drama and so gives three standard Aristotelean plots a distinctively contemporary kick.

In fact, this feels like the box set version; the synoptic equivalent of a Shakespearean history cycle. Often I find myself feeling strangely short-changed by Greek drama. They have momentum and intensity, certainly, but their plots can feel oddly sparse and simplistic. Greek tragedies can come in quite speedily – the National Theatre’s Antigone was 90 minutes long; its Oedipus, only 100 – yet, with choruses padding out the plot, they still feel bloated. Jandrell solves that by squishing three together and taking out a lot of the stuffing.

It’s not just a matter of re-energising millennia-old plays, though. Jandrell’s shift is primarily political. By foregrounding the people, this becomes a story of revolution. Oedipus seems less a tragic figure, tripping into patricide and incest, than a proto-Machiavellian prince grabbing power by force. Creon’s personal battle with him is reframed as a military coup, after which he fends off Oedipus’s sons and manipulates the power vacuum with an interim ruler intended to restore order before he steps in himself. Yet, he’s no less corrupt than his predecessor and, in turn, an uprising turns on him, triggered by Antigone’s act of rebellion in defying his decree to bury her brother. She’s “a spark to tinder;” a phrase that recalls the Tunisian protester Mohamed Bouazizi. This is the Arab Spring by way of Ancient Greece

But it also chimes with contemporary Britain in the self-interest and self-preservation of its leaders at the expense of their people. Jandrell suggests that politics’ core involves nothing more than winning hearts and minds. “My glorious mob,” Oedipus cries out to his people. “Listen to your people,” his wife implores back. “To lead and to be a leader are two different things.” It’s telling that Creon’s tack is different: “I’m not the best of you,” he soothingly reassures, “Just one of you.” The first move is always to find a common enemy, someone to blame, something to excise. When such an enemy gains a momentum of their own, as Antigone does, the state topples.

It’s a smart commission: The Faction, an independent rep company remember, has essentially made the Chorus its star. That gives director Rachel Valentine Smith room to strip the staging down to its poor theatre essentials, relying on physical and vocal work to set the scene. A lot of that works really well: the committed cast can cook up a real intensity when working together, straining against the back wall as if holding it up, for example, or panting like a single animal. They move as a sea, sloshing this way and that; they horde and huddle. Collectively they seem to move beyond reason, governed by some higher, instinctive and unpinnable intelligence.

And yet, there’s something deeply cringeworthy about it too. These are mellifluous actors, soft-spoken and careful with their diction. They are middle-class kids acting rough, all chest bumps and fist pumps. In their charcoal vests and leather jackets – and, believe me, the cast look like they’ve just looted a River Island store – they look out of sorts, particularly when holding Stanley knives to one another’s faces. It’s like they’re imitating a mode of muscularity they’ve seen on screen. They line up like dancers in a hip hop video. One duel resembles a physical theatre production of Transformers.

Still it motors along and, while some of the individual performances are better than others, Cary Crankson is a compelling Creon and Dervall Mellett a pristine Antigone. Chris Withers’ lighting design merits a mention too, managing as it does to locate the action despite the sparse staging.

Photograph: The Faction 

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