THEATRE: Thebes of the North: Richard Loup-Nolan compares versions of the Oedipus myth in Edinburgh and Glasgow

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The Independent Culture
An ancient Theban would no doubt detect the hand of Apollo in the simultaneous appearance in Scotland of two productions of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, at the Citizens in Glasgow and the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh. Predestined or not, both productions use fresh, female adaptations (Clare Venables in Glasgow, Timberlake Wertenbaker in Edinburgh) and both make bold directorial efforts to crack open the venerable old Greek nut for a contemporary audience. There the similarities end.

Kenny Ireland is no stranger to Wertenbaker's 1991 RSC-commissioned Oedipus Tyrannos, which he first directed to critical acclaim at Manchester's Contact Theatre. In Edinburgh, Ireland and his designer, Francis Gallop, bring their audience closer to the heart of Sophocles's drama by tearing out the Lyceum's stalls to produce a promenade performance area of imposing scale. To complete the monumental picture, a huge warrior-like deity hangs over proceedings like a watchful 'Zeus ex machina'.

The impact of the opening scenes, in which the cast move through shifting clouds of incense and smoke is unquestionable, but gradually the grandeur of the production begins to undermine its purpose. On one level, Oedipus is a celebration of democracy in practice. But by in effect inverting an amphitheatre and placing the protagonists above rather than below the audience, Ireland unintentionally thwarts the play's democratic urges.

For the same reason, we also remain too detached from Oedipus's tragic human dilemma. Tom Mannion's Oedipus brims with hubris, but is played so aggressively as to deflect real sympathy.

Clare Venables's Oedipus Rex has to contend with problems of performance space of quite a different order. The Citizens' Stalls Studio is a tiny and awkward oblong which forces any cast to shift restlessly from left to right to include its audience.

Venables and the designer, Stewart Laing, coolly sidestep this hurdle by covering the front and back walls with mirrors. The whole production could in fact be said to be characterised by coolness of one kind or another.

Not surprisingly, Venables has opted for modern dress, black or white suits as the order of the day, with Jocasta's flouncy dress a puzzling incongruity. With the relaxed confidence of a young Eighties entrepreneur, Cal MacAninch's Oedipus draws us into his doomed inquiry.

Clare Venables's adaptation is as taut a narrative as Wertenbaker's but more low-key in its imagery. She keeps the explosive emotions pent up under compelling, almost too carefully enunciated dialogue. By necessity, this is an intensely intimate Oedipus, scrupulously paced to allow the moments of passion, relief and terror their proper weight.

The Chorus (Simon Day) is personified by a clear-faced Everyman who attempts to shield Oedipus from his tragic destiny out of open affection. In this way Oedipus's dual role as Thebes's saviour and scapegoat has a clarity and resonance regrettably absent from the Lyceum production.

'Oedipus Tyrannos' is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, to 2 April. Box office: 031-229-9697

'Oedipus Rex' is at the Citizens, Glasgow, to 26 March. Box office: 041-429 0022