"Oedipus", says Blake Morrison, is "wonderfully Blairite". The Skipton-born writer should know: he has been living close to Sophocles' tragic hero for some months, having just completed a new version of the play for Barrie Rutter's Northern Broadsides company in Halifax.
"Oedipus is a man of the people who wants to get things done, in whom charisma is mixed with hubris." He has saved Thebes from the Sphinx, and now there is another crisis: plague is devastating the city and the surrounding countryside and will continue to do so until the murderer of Oedipus' predecessor, Laius, is discovered. And, here we are, still battling with foot and mouth and the breakdown of public services. "Leadership," observes Morrison, "has failed to deliver."
Early in the first scene a spokesman declares: "The place is falling apart. Nothing works and no one visits. Barren harvests, cows with their ribs showing like roof-slats, vast pyres of mouldering sheep – that's the meadows."
Best known perhaps for his memoir, When Did You Last See Your Father?, his controversial poem, The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper and his account of the Bulger trial, As If, Morrison is not afraid to take an unconventional stance. His Oedipus is unlike any previous translation, drawing as it does on the Yorkshire vernacular and including dialect words. "This is a political and a family play. Parricide, incest, difficulty with in-laws – this is family life; anybody would recognise it. There is a sort of homeliness in the exchanges."
The idea to stage a tragedy in Yorkshire tones came about after the success in Halifax of Morrison's version of Kleist's farce Der zerbrochene Krug, re-christened The Cracked Pot, in 1995. In it broad dialect is given full rein. The language is comparatively decorous in Oedipus, "not because dialect invites laughter at the characters, but because it is limiting in this case to suggest a particular place and time as we did with The Cracked Pot. It is not set in Yorkshire exactly, but I wished to take the action away from Thebes. Place names came out smoothly."
Nevertheless, there are comic moments: "When Jocasta [Oedipus' wife, and it is later revealed, his mother] first comes in she says, 'What a family!' Well, there is something ludicrous about it and I won't think, 'Oh dear, I've got it wrong' if there's a laugh there. And to me it's hilarious when Oedipus hears that Polybus is dead and he believes that he has cheated the prophecy that he would kill his father. This is the worst news for most people – a parent has died – and here are people cavorting about with joy."
Morrison's Oedipus, in loose verse form, often with rhyming couplets to end scenes, gives the actors words to roll in the mouth. Oedipus describes himself "... bad seed, birth defect, murderer, marriage-breaker, widow-maker, in-breeder, plague germ, agent of genocide. You're right: I'm not nowt, me, I' m worse than nowt – I was cursed, I didn't stand a chance, they pinned me like a rat under a pitchfork" and as "... doomed to sleep with my mum and give her kids several times over, and before all this to murder my dad".
He says that "mum" has sometimes become " mother" in revisions, but that his purpose was always to "make the play speak to people, not to be remote or high-flown".
Rutter has had some influence here. "He likes the idea that he is a hard task-master ... To begin with Barrie would make general comments – 'more energy', 'tougher'. He loves the monosyllable. He says there' s music in the monosyllable. He found some of the earlier drafts too middle class, too mellifluous, too fluent. He kept pushing for more dialect, but I occasionally dug my heels in and eventually we found a consensus."
But this is essentially Oedipus as we know it. "The structure," says Morrison "is very little changed. The interrogation method, the slow uncovering of the truth – the more you live with it the more perfect it seems."
'Oedipus': Dean Clough, Halifax (01422 255 266), 6 to 15 SeptemberReuse content