Last Sunday night, I and the rest of television-viewing America watched in horror as an entire family of our favorite characters from HBO’s Game of Thrones were locked in a room and murdered in gruesome, graphic, and — for those who haven’t read the books, at least — most unexpected fashion. Catelyn Stark, her son Rob, and his pregnant wife Talisa, were snuffed from the popular series’ plotline and from our collective consciousness with the flick of author George R.R. Martin’s pen. Within moments of the episode’s soundless credit roll, the internet was alight with outrage and stunned indignation from incredulous fans who felt betrayed and ill served. This isn’t the way it was supposed to happen! These were the good guys! Isn’t there anybody with a proper sense of right and wrong at HBO?!? As followed the out-of-nowhere beheading of lead character Ned Stark at the end of Season One, the puppet masters behind Game of Thrones were revealed to be feckless, capricious sadists. By what right do they toy with us in such fashion?
“We are the playthings of the gods,” Jocasta wails after learning that the infant son she gave up long ago to be killed is now her king and, awkwardly, her husband in Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company’s production of Oedipus, which opened at Memminger Auditorium Tuesday night.
Try as we will to impose order and meaning on an ultimately meaningless and undirected universe, the gods — be they Zeus’ pantheon of Olympians, George R.R. Martin, or Sophocles himself — clearly do not have our best interests at heart. In fact, it sometimes seems as though they are purposefully fucking with us. How else to explain what happens to poor Oedipus, abandoned by his mother as an infant, saved in secret by a shepherd, raised by the childless King Polybus and his wife Merope as their own, then told by an oracle that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother — only to have the boy grow up, flee the city to avoid fulfilling the prophesy, kill his true father on the road to Athen,s and end up in the arms of the mother who gave him up a lifetime earlier? Why does Catelyn have to die without ever learning that her children Brad and Rickon and Sansa and Arya are all still alive? What kind of sick omnipotence crafts such a fate for someone? What’s the takeaway here, if not one of just complete and total despair?
Writer-director-producer-actor Steven Berkoff’s production of Sophocles’ classic tragedy for Spoleto is a minimalist, highly stylized, thematically confused piece of theater that does little to address such questions, though to be fair neither did Sophocles. As he did with his direction of Salome for the festival 23 years ago, Berkoff places the entire action of the play around a large communal table, a Greek setting that seems more Mamma Mia! than ancient Athens. The chorus, dressed like blue-collar extras out of The Great Gatsby, occupy seats at the enormous table like the disciples in “The Last Supper,” while Oedipus (Daniel Rabin), resplendent in a shiny blue Italian-cut suit, black mock turtleneck, and swinging gold chain, holds forth from the center, Christ-like. Athens is gripped by a terrible plague, and the pressure is on King Oedipus to put up or shut up. How’s he going to lift the curse destroying the city? Just as OJ would — by finding the killer of the former king himself and bringing him to justice. But over the course of the play, Oedipus’ Perry Mason instincts and the expert testimony of three involved parties, reveal that the killer he seeks is sharing a blue suit and gold chain with him.
The strongest thing about Berkhoff’s play is the chorus, who act as proxies for the citizens of Athens and push the narrative forward between monologues. Berkhoff has them onstage for nearly the full duration of the play, pulling faces and striking a series of tableaux, like shocked and appalled paperboys whose features froze in place just as their mothers warned they would. This makes for a curious, compelling effect, one that seems almost more like choreography than blocking. The only trouble is that the chorus begins the play at a peak of physical emotion, so there’s nowhere left to go when the drama rockets up; they appear no more disturbed by the play’s late revelations than they were at the beginning.
Berkhoff’s technique of “total theater,” seen in the staccato action of the chorus, also extends itself to the principle actors, where it unfortunately comes across as mere hamming. Too often, the mugging, the exaggerated gestures, and the stylized movement give the impression of watching actors emote their hearts out in a silent film from the 1920s, all camp and melodrama. As Oedipus, Rabin has the worst of it, as he has little choice but to chew up the scenery in the lines Berkhoff has given him. Berkhoff himself, as Jocasta’s brother Creon, enters like Rodney Dangerfield, doing a little dance in a big black coat over an enormous belly, but seems otherwise to be mostly phoning this one in. Jocasta (Anita Dobson) is a more serious disappointment. Dobson has without question earned her acting chops in London’s West End and on screens large and small. But in the role of Oedipus’ mother and wife, she seems wooden and emotionless, a pale robot with a shock of white hair ambulating on a track about the stage, a walking emoticon alternating between happy and horrified.
Members of the chorus occasionally don Greek masks to portray a handful of the other characters in the play to fine effect, and Alister O’Loughlin makes a short but strong appearance as the Oracle. Berkhoff’s language here — written in iambic pentameter (whether from a translation or from the original Greek is unclear) — is surprisingly good: poetic, accessible, and full of nice imagery, though perhaps a little too reliant upon modern-day vernacular.
It’s not spoiling anything to say the play ends with Jocasta hanging herself and Oedipus thrusting a brooch she wears into his eyes, blinding himself — both testaments to the futility of mortals attempting to steer their own fates without driving them onto the rocks. We are not free, you and I, they seem to say. Our destinies are written for us by authors who care nothing for our artificial moralities, our shoulds and should nots, our arbitrary jealousies about punishment and reward. Valar morghulis, they tell us: All men must die. Whether you like or understand it is of no consequence. The story is all.