A towering bronze door – epic, monumental, regal, yet tarnished – dominates the Paul Brown-designed Olivier theatre stage, watching over Sophocles’s tragic tale with unwavering, unemotional solidarity.
It is through these doors that Ralph Fiennes, as the eponymous lead, makes his return to the National Theatre. Dressed in an understated suit and posturing as he addresses the gathered crowds of Thebes situated in the Olivier’s auditorium, he is the consummate politician, promising to do whatever he can to free his country from the punishment of the Gods it currently lives under.
To do so is a simple job; find the killer of the former king Laius and exact revenge. But with daunting prophecies thrown around like plates in a Greek restaurant, the true, terrible extent of his quest and his life is slowly brought to light, smashing his hope, confidence and leadership like brittle porcelain against a wall.
Jonathan Kent’s production is a strikingly minimal affair. Just a door and a bench occupy the stage, with occasional glimpses of trees in the wings as key characters make their entrances. There is little gilding to draw attention away from the turbulent emotional journey of Fiennes’s Oedipus and his mother/wife Jocasta (Clare Higgins).
The members of Kent’s chorus, dressed like their leader in simple dark suits, strangely resemble a bankers’ male voice choir, lamenting their way through Sophocles’s tale.
While Fiennes’s Oedipus is the pivot for the show, with other characters appearing only to tease out more of his horrific life story, the supporting cast’s cameos are equally important. Higgins is a suitably mothering wife, throwing up lines of defense for her husband before finally regressing to a shivering, quivering wreck in the face of a hideous truth. Jasper Britton’s Creon provides an upright, unimpeachable foil for Fiennes’s clutching, tempestuous Oedipus who, though struggling with inner turmoil, continues to play to his political supporters, eager to keep their favour.
While this is the most tragic of personal tales, the sight of a floundering leader, desperately trying to hold on to the support of his nation in the bleakest of times, seems particularly politically pertinent.