Oedipus Rex, The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens

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The Independent Culture

Considering that it was the night of the Euro 2004 semi-final match between Greece and the Czech Republic, the European premiere in Athens of Yukio Ninagawa's Oedipus Rex was very well-attended.

Considering that it was the night of the Euro 2004 semi-final match between Greece and the Czech Republic, the European premiere in Athens of Yukio Ninagawa's Oedipus Rex was very well-attended. Three thousand people gathered on the steep terraces of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the 2nd-century theatre on the slopes of the Acropolis, to see the Japanese director's version of Sophocles' sublime melodrama.

Ninagawa's work has become well-known in this country since he first brought a production of Medea here more than 20 years ago. Since then, he has made regular visits, usually to direct Shakespeare. His most recent work - Pericles at the National Theatre last year - received rapturous reviews, and the 70-year-old received a CBE in 2001 for his services to cultural relations. His style is spectacular, enlisting scenery, costumes and music for the most dramatic effects. This works well with Oedipus Rex.

Today, Greek drama is an important part of world theatre, but it was only in the late 19th century that anyone began to think that the plays could be staged for modern audiences.

Though many of the conventions of staging Greek tragedies derive from the large-scale productions of the pioneering Austrian director Max Reinhardt in the earlier part of the 20th century, the works lend themselves to radical contexts. Ninagawa's version is set in medieval Japan: plague-ridden Thebes is indicated by the tall black blooms, like a forest of broken umbrellas, which cover the back of the stage. A melancholy saxophone and traditional Japanese music provide an intermittent soundtrack.

Oedipus is played by Mansai Nomura, a young star of kyogen, the Japanese comedy theatre. Handsome and charismatic, his portrayal is remarkable for the transforming horror which grips this intelligent and self-made monarch as he realises how little he has been in control of his destiny. His glamour is matched by his beautiful queen, Jocasta, played by Rei Asami, another leading light of the Japanese stage.

But the production's most striking element is Ninagawa's use of the chorus, a 20-strong all-male band of Theban citizens. At times they moved in as priestly a manner in their scarlet robes as the Tibetan monks they resembled. At others, the crowd moved fluidly - wonderfully expressive of anger, concern, protectiveness and horror.

This production of Oedipus Rex - Ninagawa's third - is another success for his brand of totalising direction. It's not intimate theatre, but a powerful spectacle entirely suited to its large and ancient setting.

The Hellenic Festival runs plays, concerts and other events through the summer at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and at the Ancient Theatre in Epidaurus ( www.greekfestival.gr)

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