On the Misconception of Oedipus
We’ve all got family issues to some extent but few rival those of King Oedipus in perhaps literature’s biggest family breakdown, The Tragedy of King Oedipus.
In the classic Greek play, Sophocles presents a story that, although has well and truly stood the test of time, has always been shrouded in mystery. Whether in high school classrooms or within pages upon pages of psychological analysis, Oedipus has remained an endless discussion area. OK, so most of us already know how it ends, Oedipus kills his father and ends up marrying his mother (spoiler alert, sorry!), but little light has been shed on the origin of the myth and who’s actually to blame for all this mess. Directed by Matthew Lutton and presented by Malthouse Theatre, On the Misconception of Oedipus is a prequel-of-sorts to the legend we all know that manages to show the ‘how’ but highlight the ‘why,’ as the audience gets swept up is a storm of differing opinions, conflicting motives and that age-old question of fate versus free will.
With all the play’s minor characters removed (remember Creon and the shepherd?) Misconception turns its attention to its three key players: Laius, Jocasta and, of course, Oedipus. Although the characters aren’t named, they each seem to be a modern representation of their mythological counterpart. Fittingly, the single-act production is divided into three parts.
In the opening vignette we are introduced to the star himself. Dressed in a sensible Ralph Loren polo shirt and sporting a slick comb-over, Oedipus (Richard Pyros) delivers an extensive monologue that covers his childhood, his family, his recent exile and the fateful prophesy that inevitably brings upon his downfall. Jumping between a nervous smile and a vitriolic outburst like the flick of a switch, Pyros puts a fantastically sinister twist on literature’s most famous (or most infamous) “mummy’s boy.” The drawback of using monologues, and they feature quite a lot in the play’s first half, is that important aspects like action, character interaction and audience engagement can sometimes become lost. Fortunately, Lutton counters this by incorporating a more movement based second half that pulsates along with Kelly Ryall’s impressive sound design. The set is largely minimal aside from a painted white wall, some chairs and a tape recorder that records throughout. It’s as if our three players have been called in for questioning about a crime that’s been committed except that Lutton is instead showing us the crime itself and the events leading up to it.
In part two, set during a time prior to Oedipus’ birth, it’s Mummy and Daddy’s turn to take centre stage. Jocasta and Laius’ (Natasha Herbert and Daniel Schlusser) sides to the story are presented and the majority of the prequel or “pr-0edipus” as I lovingly termed it, elements occur. Seated and separate, Jocasta and Laius’ interactions closely mirror that of a couple going through a marriage counseling session that escalates from petty squabbling into a disturbing climax. Herbert’s Jocasta is a strong, determined woman who manages to score a few laughs at her husband’s expense, ridiculing his experience with a soothsaying oracle. Schlusser’s Laius is a contrasting skeptic, who fears the doom that is about to be brought upon his family. Together with Pyros, the trio of actors do a marvelous job at navigating the language, particularly through the monologues, with impeccable diction. Despite the common vernacular being used, Sophocles’ poetry certainly shines through and the slow-burning final scene between Jocasta and Oedipus is a winner.
By the end of Misconception, although we are left with more questions than answers, that’s just how writer Tom Wright wants it. Misconception has been conceived to get people talking and looking at a well-known story in a different light. By expanding upon Sophocles’ world, Wright and Lutton explore the idea of the elastic nature of truth and how perceptions can change depending on who’s telling the story. Even with a story as well known as Oedipus, it seems that opinions can shift just as quick as a spotlight can change direction. So whose side are you on?
Perth seaon: Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre of WA from 5 to 15 September