'Oedipus the king' - Existential question raised in drama school production
Though written some 2,500 years ago, Oedipus the King, by the Greek playwright, Sophocles, is arguably the greatest tragedy ever written. It is certainly one of the world's best plays.
A good production leaves its audience both emotionally drained and intellectually stimulated. The former response comes about because the play ends with the horrific suffering of a noble human being, one who is not only a loving husband and father, but a king who cares for his people and is actively trying to help rid his town, Thebes, of a devastating plague.
The intellectual stimulation arises because the play forces us to ask, as the curtain falls, whether there was any way Oedipus could have avoided his tragic end. That end came about because he was reasonably, intelligently, seeking an answer to the question of what fate the gods had in store for him and Thebes.
More broadly, the play makes us ask, as we morally and intellectually identify with Oedipus, "Do we have free will to live our lives as we wish, or are we the slaves of destiny?"
Audiences to the Edna Manley College School of Drama production - far fewer than the play deserves - were left asking that and other existential questions at the first three presentations last weekend. The final three take place this weekend.
Robert 'Bobby' Clarke, the director, told The Gleaner that he, too, asked questions about the playwright's message. He found one answer in a line from the play and quotes it in his programme note: "What we do to ourselves brings us most pain." Nevertheless, Clarke said, Sophocles is also suggesting that our adversities are not solely caused by our errors.
As he conducted rehearsals, Clarke might have seen a parallel between Oedipus' situation and his own. Undoubtedly, the cast, as a whole, has done well in interpreting what Clarke calls a "complex script," and some individuals give moving performances. The principals - Damornay Roye (Oedipus), Imaresha Smith-Cooke (Jocasta, the king's wife), DuVaughn Burke (Creon, the king's brother-in-law), and Joylene Alexander (Tiresias, the blind prophetess) - are especially strong, emotionally.
But audiences will find speech problems with the chorus, whose choral speaking is not always synchronised and not so clear. And even Roye, the lead actor, too often mispronounces words and is especially prone to dropping his h's.
Yet, Clarke worked long and hard with the actors on their speech. He went so far, he said, as to have sessions to decode the play's dialogue into Jamaican creole, so that the meaning could be understood and the scenes interpreted. But, like Oedipus, he had to work with the material the universe had given him.
As costume designer, though, along with Stacy Ann Banton, Clarke scores an unequivocal success. Even if the costumes don't actually look like the clothes worn in ancient Greece, they look realistic - which is what is important in theatre. Denise Forbes Erickson's stark set, with silver and grey walls and platform and an appropriately blood-red floor, and Calvin Mitchell's frequently-changing lighting, help to enhance the production's atmosphere.
Another atmospheric input comes from the sound effects - thunder sometimes, but more often music, from a one-man band. The man is M'Bala, who, playing at least half-a-dozen instruments, is seated off stage, just out of sight from the audience.
The issues of the play couldn't be more fundamental. Apart from the question of free will versus pre-destiny, they include incest, patricide, suicide, man's relationship to God and the possibility of knowing the future.
And the structure is wonderfully suspenseful! When the audience knows, but a character doesn't, that there's a hungry crocodile at the next turn in the path that the character is walking along, we have a set up for suspense. Again and again, Sophocles puts Oedipus in that situation, and again and again he is warned to stop.
Ironically, though, because of his admirable intentions, he feels he must go on, and with "pity and terror" - as Aristotle put it - we watch our hero move toward his ruin.
At the end of Hamlet, another great tragedy with which Oedipus the King might be compared, the protagonist is (merely) dead. Oedipus' fate is worse: he has lost his throne, he is about to lose his children, he is begging to be exiled from his city, and his eyes are bloody wounds. He has just stabbed into them repeatedly with the pins that bound together the clothes of his wife-mother who, minutes before, had hanged herself.
They don't write tragedies like that anymore.
The production closes on Sunday.