Seneca's Oedipus; Northcott Theatre, Exeter
Seneca's Oedipus

Northcott Theatre, Exeter

In his autobiography, Alec Guinness tells the story of a playgoer who, part-way through a performance, hit his mother over the head with a rolled- up magazine, declared "Shite! I've had enough of this fart-arse stuff!" and stomped out of the theatre. Anyone planning to attend the Northcott Theatre's production of Oedipus is advised to bring their magazine ready- rolled. It seems hard to miss the drama in the Oedipus myth. It opens in a city bowed down under plague, pestilence and a sun- obscuring fog, ruled by a man fighting against a terrifying prophecy. As the story unfolds and the horrifying truth is gradually revealed, the anguish and remorse which wracks Oedipus is almost beyond comprehension. All of this offers actors, directors and writers so much to work with that it dazzles the imagination.

Imagine the fun Shakespeare could have had with it if he hadn't spent so much time writing party political broadcasts for the Tudors.

Add to that a script by Ted Hughes. Our noble Poet Laureate revels in blood and gore just as much as the ancient Greeks did, and is the one contemporary writer with the power to mine the blend of primitive, natural and supernatural in the story. Taken together, it promises a stunning night of theatre. Yet the Northcott's Oedipus manages to throw away all these advantages to leave its spectators feeling little more than bored interlopers.

The first flaw lies in the play itself. Hughes's script must read beautifully on the page, and would make a resounding radio play. Yard upon yard of monologue tumbles out rich Hughesian word-pictures of events which the audience never sees. All is description, nothing is action, which limits the staging to talking heads and makes this a production which can be enjoyed just as much with your eyes closed. Even when the text does give stage directions, director John Durnin resolutely refuses to sacrifice style to accuracy, and has the character concerned act completely at odds with the commentary.

The second flaw lies in the delivery. Anyone who has heard Hughes read his own work knows it is only effective when delivered with rolling cadences, pounding out the rhythm of the repetitions and lovingly savouring the vowel sounds. Hughes reading poetry is a shaman singing the ancient song of the earth. The actors in this production deliver his verse as half- formed prose, a delivery which makes his stylistic twists and turns seem at times prosaic, at times merely clumsy. Charlotte McDougall's account of Oedipus ripping out his own eyes is remarkable only in being a startlingly accurate portrayal of how Joyce Grenfell might have performed Greek tragedy, while Richard Wills Cotton's Oedipus is so laid back and contemporary that one feels he has just returned from a backpacking trip through India.

And finally, there is the ghost of Peter Brook. Hughes's version of was originally staged by the illustrious Mr Brook in the Sixties, and that particular theatrical style hovers over the Northcott Theatre still. The staging is thick with ritualistic drumming, masks and chanting - components which ostensibly link contemporary theatre back to its most primitive roots. Unfortunately, such a production offers an audience little more than an opportunity to congratulate themselves on being able to appreciate "true theatre" when it preens itself before them. It all seems like great fun for the actors and director - but it leaves the punters with very little, in a self-gratifying production where stylistic devices and Art (with a capital A) have pushed out drama and audience engagement.

Toby O'Connor Morse

Runs until 11 April. Box office: (01392) 493493