First Night: Tragedy to make you laugh

`The Darker Face Of The Earth' The Cottesloe London
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"MY MOTHER who is my mother? Out with it!" cries Augustus (Peter de Jersey), the handsome mulatto slave, waving a knife. He has always believed that the mother from whom he was separated at birth was a raped black. In fact, she is the woman he is confronting now - the harsh, haughty Miss Amalia (Saskia Reeves), the white owner of this very plantation and the mistress with whom he has embarked on a steamy affair.

The Darker Face of the Earth - a verse play by the accolade-laden Rita Dove, the United States' first African-American poet laureate - transfers the tragedy of Oedipus Rex to pre-Civil War South Carolina. A laborious prologue set some 20 years before the main action, establishes the origins of this time-delay calamity.

Persuaded that his life will be in constant danger if she keeps him, Amalia reluctantly surrenders her new-born mixed-race baby to be raised as a slave elsewhere. The decision has a dire effect on her husband, on her former lover and on her own personality, turning her into a hard, bitter task-mistress on the estate.

The conjunction of Sophocles and the miseries of slavery would, you would have thought, be a solemn and distinguished affair, but I found parts of this play hard to view with a straight face. Instead of the inexorable necessity of tragedy, it too often serves up the lurid accidents of melodrama.

For example, given that - unlike her counterpart, Jocasta, in Sophocles's play - Amalia knows that somewhere in the world a mixed-race son of hers survives, it seems preternaturally uncircumspect of her to seduce a young man of just that age and description as soon as he comes into view. She evidently has not read Oedipus Rex.

The contrived situation allows Dove to engineer the irony whereby Augustus, torn between love for Amalia and loyalty to a group of black conspirators plotting an overthrow, thinks that by joining the latter cause he will be avenging his mother. But the parallel that Dove has talked about in interviews between the implacable all-encompassing will of the gods in Greek tragedy and the white power structure as it must have seemed to the slaves is - as the violent events at the end of the drama prove - a loose one.

The political situation here is susceptible to change. When in rapid succession, Augustus kills his real father and his supposed father and then gains undeserved credit for murdering a mother who has stabbed herself, you may feel that what you are watching is not tragedy but highbrow hokum.

The director, James Kerr, stages the piece beautifully, placing the audience like galleried eavesdroppers on all four sides of the sunken central acting area where the expertly orchestrated chorus of slaves form a believable community, humming their sorrow-songs in an atmosphere eerily haunted by the wailing of insects. It is a production that flatters the material.