REVIEW: The Cambridge Greek Play, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus at Cambridge Arts Theatre a triumph and a tour de force
- Credit: Archant
Every three years since 1882, students at Cambridge University have performed an Ancient Greek play in Ancient Greek. It is always magnificent and this year is no exception. Again, not all the cast are classicists, some have not studied the ancient language before - but all of them are accomplished actors and with impressive voices for the sung chorus. Sophocle’s play comes ringing down the years to us. It’s about division and could not be more pertinent.
This is a powerful, thoughly engaging piece of theatre. Plays don't last some two and a half thousand years for nothing.
Set in a hospital, with a frail Oedipus lying on his bed attached to a drip, the chorus, in a circle around him, are medics. It's a modern setting. Some of them are wearing scrubs.
This piece is so passionately performed in Ancient Greek that you cannot take your eyes off the actors and often do not need the surtitles to understand what they are saying.
As Sophocles' play unfolds, you see it is about division. Was it ever thus, that families and nations were riven and nothing could come out of that but suffering and conflict?
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Of course it was.
Here is Oedipus at the end of his life. This is where the Oracle said he would die, in Colonus, near Athens.
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Oedipus has made terrible mistakes - or were the decisions ever his to make? Didn't he just fulfil what the Oracle said would happen? His daughter, Antigone asks: "Was there ever a man who could escape his fate?"
Separation is the theme. If Oedipus had not been parted from his parents as a baby, he would have grown up knowing who they were. He would not have met his father, the King of Thebes, on the road and killed him (he says in self-defence) and gone on to marry his mother, the Queen of Thebes and make himself king.
The calamity of the incestuous marriage is discovered before this play starts. Oedipus's mother, and wife, Jocasta has hanged herself and Oedipus on finding her body, in torment and remorse, took the pins from her garment and put out his eyes.
He was then banished from Thebes by his brother-in-law (and uncle) the cruel Creon who takes the throne. Oedipus' sons, Eteocles and Polyneices agreed to their father's exile. His two daughters, Antigone and Ismene went with him. A family split in half.
Now we see the three in a foreign land.
The performances here are strong and true. You absolutely believe them.
Oedipus, played by Rosy Sida, her eyes covered with prosthetic scars, is exhausted, filled with fear and grief. This is a luminescent performance, anguish is in her voice and body.
Sara Hazemi and Vee Tames are his grieving, loving daughters, Antigone and Ismene. You feel their sorrow and abandonment. There is a real sense that the three of them, under a huge, white ring of hospital light, are alone.
Though the circle of doctors and nurses is sympathetic, the exiles are far from home and among people they don't know. They are ever at other people's mercy. Vulnerability and isolation fills the theatre.
All the performances are strong. Plaudits to Harry Burke as the noble King Theseus of Athens (a bit of a smoothie) who tries to make things right, Eleanor Booton as the angry King Creon, (very forceful) and Harry Camp as Oedipus's repentant son Polyneices - who finds his father intransient and unforgiving which perpetuates the horror carrying through the generations into later plays. Learning nothing from his own history, we see Oedipus curse Polyneices who (unlike his father) has taken note and is resigned to his fate.
A fascinating evening of theatre, which should not be missed.
The Cambridge Greek Play 2019, Oedipus at Colonus, is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, October 19.