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Oedipus Rex

Photo by Pia Johnson

Belvoir presents OEDIPUS REX in the Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills. 21 August – 21 September.

It is over a month since I saw this “meditation on the myth of OEDIPUS REX.”

We enter the theatre and look at a spare space with some plastic sheeting framed roughly in the back left hand corner to form a covered passage way.
The lights black out and we submit to a long, extended silence. Somebody blows in my ear – undermining the artistic intent, perhaps, but taking advantage of the much publicised offer?
The lights return and we find a very old man seated in his underwear on a chair connected by mask to an oxygen tank.
Lights out.
The old man appears in a series of sculptural poses – underwear re-arranged, dis-arranged.
On and on it goes. He gets naked and becomes disconnected to the oxygen!
Enter a disinterested, bored young woman who reveals herself as the carer of this man, who, to her, seems to be suffering from some kind of senility – dementia? She washes him.
He whoops it up when she washes his arse crevice. Some kind of flirtation?
He mutters some remembered text in an emotional stream of noise, reminiscent in sound quality to ‘whale song’, on preposterously high notes and with breaths of rib-reserve ‘blue-face’ consequences – grab the oxygen mask for goodness sake – the old man may die, muttering gobbledegook – I could not make head nor tail/tale of it.
The two play ‘games’ similar to those applied as therapy in hospices, hospitals for the aged – you know simple puzzles with blocks – block building etc. The carer is better at this game, surprisingly, than he. Don’t you love the above photograph, paper crown and teddy bear? It is so endearing.
Some time later the carer has changed clothes and sits on the lap of the old man and appears to be ‘dry-humping’ him while speaking in Greek. I think.
Blah, blah.
It ends with the old man balefully, wandering down the plastic passage, hitting out at it – flap and flap – accompanied by a blast of noise that rattles our seats and selves in intense vibration.

Adena Jacobs tells us, without irony, in her Director’s notes:

“We have lost the language of Tragedy.”

Witness this work and one can only agree. This OEDIPUS REX is indeed a tragedy. Or, is that travesty?

“Who of you have ever read OEDIPUS REX?”

Less than half of this class of theatre practitioners raise their hands. What of the regular ‘punters’/subscribers, then?

“Who of you have ever read OEDIPUS AT KOLONOS?”

None raise their hands.

“Who have read the last of the Oedipus plays by Sophocles, ANTIGONE?”

One or two.

On the other hand, most of us have a gist of what the Oedipus Complex is. It is the psychoanalytical term for the sexual desire (usually unrecognised by himself) of a son for his mother and conversely an equally unrecognised jealous hatred of his father. But as for the myth of Oedipus? Not, even, a gist.

So, how is it possible, I wondered, for us, most of us, to meditate upon the myth of Oedipus Rex, at Belvoir with Adena Jacobs and her collaborators, if the majority of us do not know the myth to begin with? Maybe, if we had an Honours degree in Creative Arts or a Masters of Theatre Practice we may do. Probability, would suggest, not many of us do. Failing that, we can only interpret what we are given to see and hear: An old man and a twisted aged carer filling out their day, vacuously. It didn’t even fit my gist of the Oedipus Complex!

I found it confronting to be told by the Director:

In Greek, the word polis literally means city. It refers to the notion of citizenship or body of citizens. Through a contemporary lens I can’t help but think of how notions of citizenship and displacement still permeate our world. As an audience, we have great responsibility. We will always be the majority. We bear witness. We are complicit. Why aren’t we intervening? … We are the polis. We are the gods. We empathise, we judge, we punish. We feel ashamed at our own looking

“We empathise, we judge, we punish. We feel ashamed at our own looking.” Let me bear witness, then, that this production, for me, was an almost unbearable twaddle. It was for many about me. Why couldn’t we intervene and stop it, as Ms Jacobs’ asks. We are, says Ms Jacobs, complicit, if we watch it without protest.

I guess, it is respect, for the actors: the honourable, “distinguished”, but stark naked Peter Carroll – why, oh why, did he do it? I know that “Johnny” Gielgud took on Oedipus late-career too, but in an entirely different way, Mr Carroll, I can assure you! – and the talented Andrea Demetriades. He, Oedipus, I suppose, and she, Antigone.

I ask, as I did, after watching Anne-Louise Sarks’ NORA just what did the Artistic Body at Belvoir, responsible for choosing the season of plays for the subscribers to pay to see, read of this text. Or, was it just an idea? It seems it was the latter, there is, for instance no writer of this project acknowledged on the title page, and since the last note from the Director in the program says: “Thank you to the cast and the creative team for their extraordinary collaboration and for co-authoring this work.” What period of time, then, went into the collaboration, co-authoring? 4 weeks? 3 weeks? Design, concept of production and realising of it. So long a time? Really?

That the photograph of Ralph Myers with Ms Sarks and Ms Jacobs – who was also responsible for the production of HEDDA GABLER – in the newspaper, selling next year’s season, is the idea of the promotions department at Belvoir, is regarded as a good idea, gives real pause as to the thinking it is so. And yet, we the polis sat through this work without intervention, so I can only imagine that our “notions of citizenship and displacement” are being counted upon to ignore the awful experiences we have had in this theatre this year, led by these very artists, and sign up again. We are, indeed, complicit.

What if, instead of this intellectual naval gazing for the few (some intellectual elitists?), Belvoir just gave us OEDIPUS REX by Sophocles. For us polis, to get a handle, at least, of what we’ve paid for. The language of Tragedy, if done well, with real competencies, might just not be dead. It has been some time since I last saw it, heard it. When was that? Oh yes, the famous production for the Old Tote Theatre Company in 1971 – yes 45 years ago. 45 years, since the play was shown, professionally, in Sydney – Directed by Tyrone Guthrie, with Ron Haddrick, Ruth Cracknell and Ron Falk, brilliantly designed by Yoshi Tosa. The language and images of Tragedy was not lost, I can guarantee you – even in the mock theatre space of the John Clancy Lecture Auditorium, believe it or not. My world was shattered.

P.S. Ms Jacobs suggests “Our production begins where the play (OEDIPUS REX, I suppose) ends. Oedipus, blind and exiled, carries out his days, led by his daughter Antigone.” (What of Ismene, in there with them?) However, in the original, at the end: “Kreon leads Oedipus into the palace.” His daughters, Ismene and Antigone are both children. Whereas, it is at the beginning of OEDIPUS AT KOLONOS, that we are told precisely: “Antigone guides her father, the aged Oedipus, onstage.” And at the conclusion of that play, Oedipus has been rehabilitated and is taken to the Sacred Grove of the Gods – all is forgiven and there is no more suffering. It would seem that our production witnessed by this polis, begins where the Oedipus of Kolonos begins, rather than at the end of the other, and it has a very different ending! I don’t know what contemporary lens Ms Jacobs is looking through – one darkly, for sure, but maybe she should check her text of inspiration, again.

Ah, well, as Ms Jacobs tells us: “Sometimes the theatre fails us.” 


  1. THE OEDIPUS PLAYS OF SOPHOCLES: OEDIPUS REX. OEDIPUS AT KOLONOS. ANTIGONE., Translated by Robert Bagg. University of Massachusetts Press – 2004.
  2. SOPHOCLES: OEDIPUS AT COLONOS. Adrian Kelly. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy – 2009.
  3. The OEDIPUS REX Program notes of Adena Jacobs.