Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]

Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex

The text of a review given by Mr Walter Scott, Principal of Wellington Teachers' Training College, in 2YA's 'Arts Review', Sunday 25 July 1959.

Oedipus Tyrannus has strong claims to be regarded as the greatest play ever written. This may seem a rash thing to say because it is easy to name others that have similar or comparable points of greatness — the Orestitem trilogy of Aeschylus, or Hamlet, or Macbeth — but I think no other great play quite equals Oedipus in concentrated driving power and explodes with such intensity and force into a catastrophe so terrible. No other great play is so flawless in structure and characterization as this one, and whether or not these claims are well founded Oedipus is one of the great deathless, endlessly fruitful plays of our civilization. It is not, as some writers have insisted, a tragedy of fate in which a faultless, innocent man is brought to disaster to fulfil a prophecy; not a play whose theme is 'As little flies to wanton boys, are we to the Gods — they kill us for their sport'. The action of the play, as Bernard Knox so well pointed out, is not Oedipus's fulfilment of the prophecy, but his discovery that he has already fulfilled it. The catastrophe of Oedipus is that he discovers his own identity, and for this discovery he is first and last responsible.

Mr Campion's superb production, I think, was in nothing more successful than in showing Oedipus as a free agent whose own actions precipitated the tragedy. Under his direction Michael Hattaway effectively portrayed the qualities of quick temper, impetuosity, and pride, the hubris that forced the reluctant Tireisias to say more than he wanted to, and started its possessor on his headlong rush to his frightful doom.

In setting, lighting, costuming, musical accompaniment, movement and grouping, and generally speaking in acting, this Victoria University Drama Club presentation was a splendid tragic spectacle with all these elements skilfully blended to sustain the dignity, grandeur and nobility of the play.

I do not think that I am operating the double standard in praising it so highly; I have seen Greek plays staged here and in the United States by professional companies with distinguished people doing them, but I am convinced that in all respects except one the performance was at least their equal and in some respects their superior. A conjunction of talents very hard to rival was brought to bear on the staging and production of this play — Richard Campion as producer, David Farquhar as composer of the music, Raymond Boyce as stage and costume designer.

There were however some things I did not like. The broad steps down from the page 29 palace to the orchestral floor should, in my opinion, have appeared solid stone; and the drum or gong beat that marked each significant step in Oedipus's discovery of himself I felt as an unwelcome intrusion. But if these are faults outside this spectator's mind, they are small ones in such an accumulation of merits.

From its opening scene, where the suffering citizens grouped themselves in gesturing supplication to their lord, to the close where the same man, cast down, blinded and bloody, in agony of body and mind, made his slow, fumbling, harrowing exit, the stage was filled with a succession of beautiful scenes changing and merging as the action of the play required, artistically as well as dramatically moving to the ear and eye.

The management of the Chorus of the Theban Elders was perhaps the most remarkable of Mr Campion's achievements. In this play, as usually in Sophocles, the chorus are participants in the action as well as commenting on it. Mr Campion skilfully wove them into the action of the play and at the same time made of the movement and grouping by which he did this an aesthetically pleasing picture, a most satisfying spectacle. Most noticeably of all, he and Mr Farquhar taught the chorus a way of intoning their lines that fitted the mood and atmosphere of the play very well indeed.

The respect in which the play fell short of the overseas ones I had referred to earlier is of course the acting, though I doubt if Tim Eliott's portrayal of Tireisias could often be surpassed anywhere. In saying this I am making a comparison between professionals and amateurs which is not fair and which is perhaps a trifle absurd.

Linda McDougall is not Judith Anderson, but her playing of Jocasta was sufficiently strong and clear to convey the character effectively — the scepticism, the irreverence, the sense of guilt and wrong, the love for Oedipus, the horror that finally possesses her. One thing in the playing of the part that is essential, I feel, is to show dearly that Jocasta loves her husband physically. Linda McDougall, I thought, managed this quite successfully.

The part of Oedipus makes very great demands on the actor. Oedipus is a man of towering moral and mental strength, imperious, passionate, devoted to his home and family and people, ready to sacrifice himself for their good. In the play, he runs almost the gamut of human feelings — pity, love, suspicion, horror, agony of mind and body and soul. On the whole Michael Hattaway met these demands very well. He understood the character thoroughly, spoke his words with thought and intelligence and in an adequately resonant and flexible voice, and stood and moved in his splendid robes with kingly dignity and authority. His gestures were often rather stilted and stiff and I thought he let the tension drop in those scenes in the last few minutes of the questioning of the Corinthian messenger and the shepherd. But he portrayed Oedipus very finely as the great King and was even better as Oedipus the self-blinded outcast.

I am afraid that I have no time to particularize further and can only say a final word; that the presentation of this play was an event of the first importance in the dramatic life of this country.

John Ross