Oedipus: This artwork makes me feel empowered

(This article contains spoilers for Oedipus: After Sophocles by Robert Icke)

In August 2019, I headed up to Edinburgh for my very first Fringe festival. I spent many hours flyering in the unpredictable Scottish weather, and saw a multitude of gigs, plays and immersive experiences (and Drunk Shakespeare, naturally), all of which will stick with me for a long time. But it was a production of Oedipus by International Theatre Amsterdam as part of the Edinburgh International Festival which completely changed my life. The stage was huge – all chrome and campaign posters – and as the audience filed in, a digital clock display to the rear of the stage counted down ominously.

For those of you who know Oedipus (whether it be from Sophocles’ tragedies or Sigmund Freud’s rather disturbing complex of the same name), this doesn’t seem like your typical production of an Ancient Greek tragedy. But if you’re going to reimagine a classic, this is absolutely the way to go about it. Over the next three hours (no interval, just ever-building tension and that ticking clock), we learned about Oedipus – not the fabled king, but a very real, very human politician on the last night of his campaign. He shares a dinner with his family, seems to be deeply in love with his wife – their scenes are quite lovely despite the deep level of ick if you know the tale – and deals with political crisis after political crisis in his journey to victory.

The show was in Dutch, but this wasn’t distracting thanks to captions, a testament to the incredible performances of the actors. The atmosphere in the audience was unbelievable – we all sat on the edge of our seats, willing Oedipus to win despite knowing from the very beginning that nothing but tragedy could come of this story. When the clock ticked down to zero, not to a happy victory as we’d hoped, but to the horrific truth of Oedipus and Jocasta’s true relationship, the audience was dead silent in a way I’ve never experienced. Icke’s production had me gripped from the moment I sat down, and it remains the most affecting show I’ve ever seen. I really hope to see it again in the future.

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Ash Strain

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September 2021
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