Oedipus Rex, Epidaurus Festival, Epidaurus, Greece <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus, site of a summer-long festival, seats 12,000. Watching the audience arriving is akin to watching the arrival of a football crowd. The procession up the hill to the arena never seems to end.

The first sight of the vast venue as you round a corner is breathtaking. Not only the shell-shaped 55-tier auditorium and stage from the 4th century BC, but also the monumental gates through which the actors entered, all remain, excavated in the 19th century and now serving as one of the most remarkable theatrical spaces in the world. The acoustics are so good that microphones aren't needed.

It was unfortunate that for this production by Athens Contemporary Theatre, the original stage was covered by the set. And the performance, with its challenging mixture of traditional and modern, certainly didn't please all the Greeks in the audience. But I found it thrilling. Sophocles' version of the Oedipus story was acted out in conventional form, but the chorus sang their words to the music of the Bosnian film composer Goran Bregovic, accompanied by a band.

Yorgos Kimoulis, who played Oedipus, was also the director, a dual role not always to be recommended. He was also a little old for the part, being in his late forties, but was a powerful presence, and his direction was often gripping. When the blind priest Tiresias, his face the shocking white of a clown's, leapt out of his wheelchair and crawled across the stage, arms flapping like wings, to tell Oedipus the truth, it wasn't just compelling, it was terrifying.

Even if you know the story, it is asking a lot for tourists to follow two-and-a-half hours of Greek. Some 30 per cent of the audience now come from outside Greece, and offering a translation, whether by surtitles or headsets, should be considered. But even without translation, this is a great theatrical experience.

So, what stopped this absorbing evening from getting five stars? The answer is, one of the most bizarrely inappropriate moments I have ever seen at the theatre. It came at the curtain call, when, in the style of a West End musical, the principals reprised one of the numbers. It was the song about the prophecy that Oedipus would kill his father. There at the front of the stage was a still-bloodied Oedipus grooving for all he was worth. Next to him, a now beaming Jocasta jigged up and down to the beat. And in his grave, Sophocles, too, was turning wildly.