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The Theban Plays

(No record of where and when printed), Frank Granville Barker

Honourable was the first word that came to mind as I tried to sum up the presentation of the Theban trilogy of Sophocles after watching it complete in the course of a morning and afternoon at a preview. There were a few moments on the way when a particular costume or a too colloquial phrase in Don Taylor’s new translation struck a jarring note, but my attention was riveted throughout the six hours’ traffic of the screen.

It had wisely been decided from the start not to modernise the plays in any way, relying on their structural perfection and the subtlety of their characterisation to make the dramatist’s timeless themes perfectly clear and relevant to the audience of today. Viewers were left to draw their own parallels between the society of Athens almost 2,500 years ago and our own.

The translation itself was robust and eminently actable, and if one was disturbed by Oedipus abusing Teiresias as a “paranormal stuntman” one could relish Antigone’s description of Hades as “that bleak hotel/That is never short of a room.” The lyric verse of the choral dialogue was forceful, given impetus by rhymes that were not too obtrusive, coming as close as seems practically possible to solving the problem of the Greek chorus.

The general style of Taylor’s production seemed tied to the stage rather than being opened up for television, though there was a stunning image when the blinded Oedipus appeared, his head covered with a white cloth through which the blood suddenly began to run in two streams. The production could have done with more such visual moments. The action in ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ was more free and realistic than that of ‘Oedipus the King’ and ‘Antigone’.

There has been some considerable criticism of the costumes, though I felt June Hudson achieved a reasonable compromise with here late 19th-century designs. Oedipus’ white suit was formally regal in timeless style, and the Theban Senators were effectively contrasted by the humbler Elders of Colonus. I would only quibble that Jocasta looked self-consciously smart and the Messenger in ‘Antigone’ incongruously raffish.

What finally made me so profoundly grateful to the BBC was its assembling of a dream of a cast. When shall we ever see again this masterly trilogy with a Chorus including such distinguished actors as Robert Eddison. Paul Daneman, the late Nigel Stock and Ernest Clark, not to mention Frank Windsor, who negotiated the line “But where are the girls?” without my being aware of the pitfall until I read the text afterwards. Whether speaking in unison, in groups or singly, they all seemed remarkably at home in this most perilous of theatrical convention.

Michael Pennington was utterly persuasive as Oedipus the just and kindly ruler flawed only by his pride, arousing almost unbearable pity for him as his false hopes of avoiding the cruel destiny imposed on him by the gods were raised only to be finally dashed. He even proved a vocal match for John Gielgud’s authoritative Teiresias, and one cannot say more than that.

Anthony Quayle was an equally fine choice for the exiled Oedipus, convincingly reconciled to his fate after it had seemed he would go down cursing: his denunciations of Creon and Polynices were so tremendously majestic that the Messenger’s narration of his death became all the more effecting. No less impressive was John Shrapnel’s performance as Creon, developing from man of reason in ‘Oedipus the King’, through the shameless bully of ‘Oedipus at Colunus’, to the rigid tyrant of ‘Antigone.’

Juliet Stevenson, in a performance that should win her an award, brilliantly succeeded in making one aware of Antigone’s threat to the well-being of the state and the interests of its laws while evoking maximum sympathy for her championing of individual rights. She presented her exactly as Sophocles intended, not as we regard her type today.

Among supporting performances, Norman Rodway’s Coronthian Messenger, a shepherd who has gone up in the world, was a triumph of imagination. Also memorable were Clive Francis as Theseus, Cyril Cusack as the Priest, Kenneth Haigh as Polynices and Mike Gwilym as Haemon. And I had almost forgotten Claire Bloom as a passable Jocasta, which just goes to show what a smashing cast this was.

The Listener, 11th September 1986, Al Senter

‘Oedipus the King’ (Tuesday BBC2 8.30-10.40pm) is generally held to be Sophocles’ masterpiece and here Taylor’s directorial vision, which grows cloudy later in the story, is most acute. Michael Pennington’s white-suited monarch is every inch the golden-boy Oedipus, confidentially asserting to his suffering Theban subjects that he will root out the cause of the divine displeasure which is blighting the city. With characteristically Sophoclean irony, Oedipus unwittingly curses himself and, when he has painfully unravelled the truth – which, of course, turns out to be about himself – seeks violent and shocking atonement by plucking out his eyes.

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