Tonneelgroep Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 17th May 2018
The Tourist sets off to Amsterdam to see the new version of Oedipus from the mighty Toneelgroep Amsterdam. As well as his first visit to the Concertgebouw and a chance to reacquaint himself with one Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Tourist finally blogs as a Tourist.
What was the attraction. Oedipus first. Your man Sophocles could write a drama, no doubt about that, and for me, this, Oedipus the King (Rex or Tyrannus), tops his other oft-performed work, Antigone, (though that is still a cracker of a story). These two plays, in a trilogy, sandwiched Oedipus at Colonus where our unfortunate hero leaves Thebes with his daughters and proceeds to pop his clogs after a lot of philosophical chat.
I hope one day to see an adaption of Sophocles’s version of Electra, (all three Greek tragedians had a pop at this story), and Ajax, the miffed warrior who, surprise, surprise, tops himself. I hope, as has occasionally happened, some clever creative will also see the potential in Philoctetes, (wounded soldier on high horse – metaphorically of course – who doesn’t want to fight again). I gather the least interesting of Sophocles’s seven remaining plays is Women of Trachis.
Anyway, as you almost certainly know, the plot of Oedipus the King is an absolute belter. It’s been hard for any writer to top this, for sheer OTT intensity, ever since 429 BCE. That weirdo Freud even named a theory after it. Unwittingly kill your Dad and marry your Mum. It doesn’t end well.
How to adapt this though is the perennial creative conundrum. Which brings me to the second reason to hop on a train to see this. (Yes it is now possible to take the direct train from London to Amsterdam if not yet the return. Cheap as chips, door to door no longer than a flight. And so much more civilised. The bit from Brussels to Amsterdam was pretty much empty).
Namely director Robert Icke. For those that don’t know, Mr Icke, at just 32 years old, is the wunderkind of British theatre direction, though there are many others who match him in my opinion. He was responsible for the revelatory Almeida Hamlet with Andrew Scott, the recent Mary Stuart, 1984, Uncle Vanya and Mr Burns, all at the same venue, (where he is Associate Director), and The Red Barn at the National Theatre. Not all perfect but in many cases mightily close. Yet, of his work to date, probably the most breathtaking was his Oresteia, which even managed a West End transfer after its Almeida run.
Here he took Aeschylus’s mighty trilogy, dispensed with the chorus, pumped up the back story, gave the Gods a court-room at the end to weigh up Orestes’s guilt, (with a bit of audience participation), and carved out a family revenge drama of startling power, where black and white is mutated into every shade of grey, and where death is viscerally real. His adaptation translates the poetry into something more immediate which any audience can grasp. Greeks doesn’t get any better than this.
So no wonder he was invited into the Toneelgroep party to have a go at Oedipus. And there is a lot that Mr Icke has in common with the masters of TA, Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld. The set of Oedipus is one of the modern, faceless, corporate offices which IvH and JV used so effectively in Kings of War and Roman Tragedies. Though given Mr Icke’s set up for Oedipus, a campaign headquarters on the night of an election result, Hildegard Bechtler’s design could hardly be more appropriate. As it happens Ms Bechtler designed the Hamlet set so she knows the Icke drill. The TA stage in the Stadsschouwburg is wide and deep like the Lyttleton. I reckon you could sit anywhere, (and seats are a bargain €30 or so), and see everything. As well as the set, the use of video (Tal Yarden) and screens, a bit of on-stage eating in a family dinner, the modern, relaxed dress, the sound of Tom Gibbons and the lighting from Natasha Chivers, all echo the TA aesthetic. Mr Icke also borrows freely from his own back catalogue, most noticeably with the giant digital clock counting down on stage, representing the time to the election result, but more importantly the revelation underpinning the prophecy. The domestic interplay, the interior setting, the on-stage suicide of Jocasta though thankfully not Oedipus’s gouging, (here with heels not dress pins, ouch), the bickering over the family dinner, the strategising, all will be familiar to those who have seen Oresteia.
The set-up is brilliant. We see a video of Oedipus talking to the press after the election has closed. He promises to clean up the plague which is debilitating Thebes. Here though the plague is shorthand for the political corruption and economic incompetence of the previous administration. “The country is sick”. He is offering a bright new future. “Yes we can” or “drain the swamp”. Take your pick. He also, on the hoof, commits to investigating, and getting to the truth of, Laius’s murder. Cut to the loyal speechwriter/adviser Creon, played here by Aus Greidanus Jr, having a go at Oedipus for making this risky promise. Tiresias (Hugo Koolschlin) is wheeled in to deliver the prophecy. Our first opportunity to see the nasty side of Hans Kesting’s Oedipus as he angrily dismisses the blind old boy’s “nonsense” and turns on Creon who he reckons wants the job of leader. Marieke Heebink’s Jocasta talks him out of sacking Creon, (no need for a chorus and executions in this scenario!), and we are on to the killing at the cross-roads.
But here Laius (Jocasta’s first hubby) is the victim of a road accident (limos not chariots obvs), and Oedipus starts to piece together his own accident story with the established version, questioning the Chauffeur, played by Bart Slegers. You know the rest …… and if you don’t you should. The way Robert Icke fits his version of the plot to the “original” is artful and ensures that the last third or so of the production is as powerful as it should be.
What Mr Icke also intelligently lays on top is the family dynamic as we see “Mum” Merope (Freida Pittoors), consumed by the agony of watching Oedipus’s unseen “Dad” Polybus dying whilst all Oedipus cares about is the prophecy and, here, his route to power, daughter Antigone (Helene Devos) and sons Polynices (Harm Duco Schut) and Eteocles (Joshua Stradowski). Their is some conflict between the two lads: remember they go on to bring Thebes to its knees by knocking seven bells out of each other. The entourage is rounded out by faithful retainer Corin (Fred Goessens) and assistant Lichas (Violet Braeckman).
The supporting actors are uniformly marvellous but it is Hans Kesting and Marieke Heebink who dominate the stage. Which brings me to the third reason to nip over to Amsterdam to see this. The Tourist considers Hans Kesting to be the best male actor in the world and Marieke Heebink to be the best female actor. They proved it once again here. No fear you see, massive emotional range and immense physicality. No point holding back as the revelations tumble out in Oedipus and, trust me, they don’t. The scene were Jocasta explains how she was abused by Laius, and conspires to smuggle her baby away, is unbearably moving. Love is about the trickiest emotion to capture on stage. These two show exactly how to do it.
So why just 4* and not the 5* that you might expect from this obviously gushing fan of the play, the ensemble and the director. Firstly there is maybe, as I allude to above, a bit of a sense that we have seen this all before. The setting works, how “fate” brings a “good, man” down, and, specifically whether it pays for a politician to be “honest”, but the look and feel is maybe just a bit too close to Mr Icke’s previous work. More importantly the text is maybe a little too direct. Remember I was following a sur-titled English translation of a Dutch adaption by Rob Klinkenberg of the original Greek filtered through numerous prior translations. This presumably makes its literalness even more literal. Helps plot and message but leaves poetry on the table. In TA’s other work I have seen, the Shakespeare for example, this has not been a constraint, the language still shines. In IvH/JW’s Antigone conversely, which came to the Barbican, the translation by Anne Carson was too challenging, though this disappointed more through Juliette Binoche’s miscasting it pains me to say.
Still overall this is a great piece of theatre. If it ever wends its way to London you must see it. Otherwise we have Marieke Heebink as the lead in Simon Stone’s Medea to look forward to next year at the Barbican and Simon McBurney makes his directorial debut at TA at the Staadsschouwburg with a Cherry Orchard. Yum. This creative collaboration, amongst so many other reasons, is why Europe is a good idea. Though I doubt any of the dumb-arses in England who think differently would care.