18 Mar 2016

Review: The Chorus; Oedipus

From the collecton Arts Festivals 2016
The Chorus; Oedipus

The Chorus; Oedipus Photo: Supplied

This is a show to admire, but not to love.

No one could fail to be impressed by the dedication and intensity of its Korean performers, who throw themselves wholeheartedly into the restless choreography which suffuses the action. This is a very well-oiled theatrical machine with every cog performing perfectly in sync.

The fundamental problem though, is that although The Chorus: Oedipus succeeds theatrically, it’s less convincing dramatically.

Let’s back up for a bit. The original play by Sophocles on which this version is based is the greatest and most influential of all ancient Greek drama. Written around 429 BC, Oedipus Rex is an still an astonishingly powerful text today, as it meticulously pieces together a portrait of a man trapped by fate.

Even in translation, it glitters with images and phrases as powerful as anything written by Shakespeare: when its central character is assailed by doubt having been told some very bad news, we hear of “stinging words that swarm and die not.”

What’s enthralling about the original is not the bare plot outline – Oedipus unwittingly murdering his own father and marrying his own mother – but the psychological and emotional damage wrought on him by the eventual revelation of this truth.

It’s in the play’s forensic focus on its central role that the drama lies.

A pivotal moment is his hearing of a murder which happened at the crossroads (the very crossroads where years before he had killed a man he didn’t know on his journey to the city where the play is set). In Stravinsky’s powerful oratorio based on the play, this moment is electrifying: the chorus chants “trivium” as though it were a portent of doom. No such luck here, though.

For the first two-thirds of its action, this production treats the chorus as if it were the major character, of more interest than Oedipus. And also, bizarrely, an all-knowing character. There’s not the slightest sense of awakening dread, of realisation dawning, of conflict or confusion. Although there’s plenty of theatrical interest in the restless choreography and elaborate choral music, no dramatic space is given to the central character to allow his story to breathe.

Instead, the action is feverish and already at danger point right at the outset of the play. Fluent and inventive as the staging is – uniformly clad in white gowns, the cast swirls and swoops all over the place – it’s not until the final third of the show that we ever get a moment of silence or composure.

Sure, the idea of offering the text as a primarily musical experience has promise. After all, drama in ancient Greece was sung. But the chorus plays far too overbearing a role here for much sense of drama to survive.

Add to this the over-amplified singing (surely mikes are not needed in the intimate Q Theatre?) and the relentlessly bangy-bangy piano score, and you have a pretty uninvolving experience.

Well, that’s so for the first two-thirds of the action. Blessedly, though, the volume level subsides from then on, aural textures thin out, the chorus takes a back seat, and the dilemma of the principal characters comes more sharply into focus.

Things had picked up by the play’s conclusion to make me more interested in what happened to its central character, but still not enough to make me care much one way or another.

This is theatre big on spectacle, but lacking heart.