Oedipus Rex: UCL's Classical Play gives a nod to Brexit
4 March 2019
This year’s Classical Play, Oedipus Rex, served up a healthy dose of tragedy with a nod towards Brexit uncertainty, and how easy it is for the modern audience to relate to a Greek tragedy.
Beth Wells, Communications and Student Engagement Officer for the Joint Faculties Office caught up with students Caterina Domeneghini and Issy Halpin, producer and director respectively, to find out more about the production.
The production has been in the pipeline since last summer. Each year students put forward their proposals for the text they would like to see produced for the annual UCL Classical play, and the Greek and Latin department then select the winner. With only two week’s left until live performances begin, and rehearsals demanding 25 hours of their week alongside their studying, Final Year Greek and Latin student, Caterina, and First Year English student, Issy, seem surprisingly chipper when they kindly meet me to discuss all things Oedipus Rex.
Could you provide a short synopsis of Oedipus Rex?
IH: Follows the story of King Oedipus of Thebes who sends his brother-in-law Creon to identify the cause of the mysterious plague that has struck the city. Creon returns to tell Oedipus that the Prophets have told him that if they find out who killed Laius, the previous king, then the plague will be cured. Oedipus begins to investigate who the killer is and speaks to the prophet, Teiresias, who is ambiguous and taunts Oedipus. Teiresias eventually tells him that the king’s death was all his fault and enrages Oedipus. Oedipus begins to suspect that Creon, in attempt to dethrone him, has conspired with Teiresias to claim that Oedipus was the murderer of the king. Oedipus’ wife, Queen Jocasta, advises him to distrust prophecies as there was a prophecy about her first born child that he was going to grow up and kill his father and sleep with his mother, but instead her former husband, King Laius, threw the baby out on the mountains to die and never grow up. Through a series of prophecies, interrogations and events, Oedipus begins to suspect that he was the abandoned baby. A messenger and a servant confirm the tale. Queen Jocasta figures out that Oedipus is her son and hangs herself out of shame. Oedipus finds Jocasta’s body and then takes her brooch and stabs out his eyes.
What are the main themes throughout the play?
CD: I would say probably the dangers of knowing too much and always wanting to know the truth at any cost. I think that, although Greek tragedy can sometimes be very difficult for the modern audience to understand, there are universal themes which can bind people together, and one of these for sure is the driving impulse towards knowledge which Oedipus presents with all of its harmful effects. Also another theme I would like to point out is verbal miscommunication, which is really well reflected in the Greek and which we have tried to reproduce in our original translation and script: the audience already knows what is going to happen, whereas the characters don’t, and this is really interesting to see.
Why Oedipus Rex?
CD: One of the reasons why we chose this play amongst the great body of Greek tragedies, is that perhaps Oedipus Rex was considered a masterpiece since antiquity. The Greeks themselves found it unrivalled in aesthetic and artistic value, and for a particular reason: as Aristotle said in the Poetics, what makes a perfect drama is the temporal coincidence of two tragic events, anagnoresis and peripeteia in Greek, namely recognition and the reversal of the characters’ fortunes. This is exactly what happens in Oedipus Rex: at the very moment Oedipus discovers who he really is, his world begins to collapse. And, more in general, I think Oedipus Rex is great in the sense that it really portrays the cultural mobility of Classics in that it continues to stimulate the modern audience with themes that are contemporary and ever-present, even in our modern world.
Are you adapting it for a modern audience or are you keeping faithful to the original text?
CD: It’s a mixture of both. The translation really tries to portray the emotions of the lines, the key themes of the play and the interactions between characters, which I think is really important. But at the same time we have tried to use modern conventions of entertainment and drama in order to engage a modern audience, and obviously also a young audience because many spectators will actually be students. In order for these audience to be involved more we have decided to set it in the early twentieth century.
Why the twentieth century?
IH: It’s about the transition between monarchies and more democratic led politics. Oedipus is the figure of the monarch and Creon comes in being the democratic leader. The Chorus say to Creon “you must act in his place” and he agrees to do so. We also wanted to do the plague not directly as an allegory for World War I so its set in the inter-war period, but it is meant to be a population tragedy has struck and now they are in the wake of the tragedy trying to solve everything. We tried to draw in the main themes, and also the theme of isolation and lost family, for example not knowing your origins seemed to tie quite nicely into the era.
CD: Also, the play portrays the transition from archaic Greece (monarchy and Homeric world) to classical Athens (democracy coming in), so there is this transition we have tried to maintain but project it on to the modern world.
IH: I have to say, these guys translated it and it is an amazing translation – it’s so easy to read.
Wow, did you translate it yourself?
CD: Not only me. Myself and two other UCL students.
Are there any underlying themes which nod towards current social issues or feelings?
IH: I think the idea of who’s in the know and who is in charge is quite resonant. In terms of the actual language there is a lot of interplay about with the theme of sight. Tiresias is the prophet who is blind, but he has this foreknowledge, and Oedipus when he actually understands everything loses his physical sight. But there is this interaction between who knows what and who can see the end picture clearly, and I think this resonates well with the current “Brexit World” and questioning what is going to happen in the future.
CD: There is also the modern scientific scenario with all this technological and scientific progress which obviously derives from the human desire to know everything and have all questions answered, like during Oedipus’ time. We find that we have much more power to do harm to people than we had before, and it’s all due to our intellectual discoveries and inventions: for example, World War weapons, or cloning with all its related ethical issues – this desire to know everything can actually do harm to people sometimes.
Do you have a favourite scene in the production?
IH: I like what we have done with the Chorus in our play, we have used lots of physical theatre, which I love. The Chorus is quite hard to put on a modern stage because there are these people just saying what is happening. Through physical theatre they have a more interesting role, so they represent the plague and you see them getting healed throughout the dance sections which I really like. I also love the scene with Miles, who is our Corinthian messenger.
CD: Yeah, he’s really funny…
IH: It’s so funny. He has a line where he says “he’s well and truly kicked the bucket now” and he does a kicking movement…he is just so ridiculous.
Sum up the play in three words.
Can you describe the process of the play coming together e.g. the research and analysis of the original text, the script, casting etc.
CD: The translation was started very early, during the summer. We took one of the most recent editions of the Greek text and we divided it into three and each one of us translated a part. The first stage was a very literal translation and a close textual analysis. The second stage was to condense the translation down to a play script, which required us to leave aside some of the more accurate syntactical and lexical correspondences to give greater importance to the key themes, the language and the emotions of the lines. After the translation we bid for Oedipus Rex amongst other students with their own suggestions for a play, and we won.
And who voted for that?
CD: The department. There was our academic co-ordinator, Tom Mackenzie, and the Head of Department, Gesine Manuwald who voted for us and so we had the go-ahead. First of all we interviewed production members and created a production team in early October. After that we auditioned the actors and created the cast and the crew, and then… [nod towards Issy]
IH: …and then we just started rehearsing! We did one week before reading week but that was basically making sure that everyone understood their different parts and could paraphrase their lines so they actually understood the intents and objectives of their characters, and we started putting the play on its feet after the November reading week.
Is then production entirely student led, or do members of staff get involved?
CD: We have an academic coordinator from the Greek and Latin Department who is there for us if we need some advice or help, but he is not technically involved in the production of the show. The organisation and production of the play is mainly student led. The funding comes from the Bloomsbury, the UCL Greek and Latin department and there's also been some contribution from a few Classics professors (UCL and non): the academic coordinator Tom Mackenzie (already mentioned), and Professors Miriam Leonard and Fiachra Macgorain (all from UCL) have written academic essays for the play's programme; Miriam, as well as Professors Nick Lowe and Patrick Finglass, will also deliver pre-performance lectures. Finally, the renewed director David Stuttard will hold a workshop on Friday 8th, 11am-1.30pm.
Is this the first time you have got involved with a UCL theatre production?
Is this your first time directing? If not, what has been your previous experience?
IH: It’s pretty much my first time directing. I’m in first year and I’ve never directed at UCL. We did a sixth form play at school and I had a hand in that but not much. I did a bit at school, helping out with the school musicals and things, but never on my own.
How are you finding the experience?
IH: It is fun…but also it can be quite stressful.
What does a typical day of directing involve?
IH: Because it’s pretty much dialogues throughout we have Luke, who is playing Oedipus, for the whole rehearsals and we have different cast members coming in and out. We warm them up and do some games, and then we run through the scene once naturistically to see what needs working on that day because it tends to change day to day. Then sometimes I do more “acting” exercises, like asking them to scream at each other, or doing the scenes in different ways so they get a different understanding of it. Sometimes this can be completely bizarre, like the other day I had Creon and Oedipus pretending to be New York detectives. This allows them to loosen up about it and they don’t have really set blocking. Then we come back and make them do the scene again in light of the exercises we have just done. Then I would stop them line by line if I think they are doing something that doesn’t work – I try not to be like “move three metres”, but ask them “what do you think this is the intention here? How can we create a greater sense of tension?” - to make it more organic and try to get them to do it with their initiative.
Is there anyone in particular who has inspired your directing style?
IH: So I did AS drama at school so I am doing some of the stuff we did there. I suppose you could say the style is inspired by “Stanislavski”, if you want to use the proper lingo. The theatre company Frantic Assembly, which I love, do a really fluid rehearsal thing where you try a million different things and then as you go learn what you like and put that into the scene.
Do you have a favourite theatre in London?
CD: Probably the National Theatre
IH: The Criterion I quite like, it’s quite small.
What has been your most memorable or favourite performance you have seen?
CD: It was an opera by Verdi named Aroldo
IS: I saw The Miser two years ago and that as amazing. It had Lee Mack in it as the main guy. Or Troilus and Cressida at the RSC which I saw last year and that was amazing too.