Any classicist will remember how the first read-through of a Greek tragedy feels: stilted, sometimes soporific, other times ludicrously over dramatised, always unnatural: Children of Oedipus had many of the same qualities. The acting was generally fairly average, rarely sparkling and often unbelievably awkard: none of the characters achieved the necessary emotional development, with the result that their final outbursts of lamentation seem contrived and embarrassing. It’s rare to see a Greek tragedy, even adapted, transfer well to a modern audience, and to a great extent it’s not the fault of this company.
Also certainly not their fault is the notorious problem of filling the O’Reilly, which suffers from being neither the BT, with its cosy audience of friends, nor the Playhouse, where students mingle with real grown-ups. As a result, the theatre lacks energy: a few critics, a few friends, some parents, and a couple of solitary Euripides-lovers do not a packed house make, regrettably. Audience conceptions of dramatic technique have changed too far, it seems. The emotional intensity required would be difficult for even the strongest of actors, and no one in this piece had the bravado to carry off the visceral pain experienced by the various members of the House of Cadmus as their city and their family are torn apart by internecine strife.
Nevertheless, there were some strong moments: an unusually attractive and blonde Tiresias in Jack Wills put in one of the strongest performances, aided by the clever conceit of a radio standing in for Tiresias’ messages from the gods. Also strong was the messenger speech, which was transformed into a duet by the dead brothers Polyneices and Eteocles: any lover of meta-theatre would have been delighted by the image of two dead brothers announcing their own death under the pretence of being a fairly uninteresting messenger character.
The set design was also very effective, reminding one of a decaying English country house, entirely appropriate despite its apparent anachronicity for the falling House of Cadmus. The danger of the traditional Oxford thespian self-confidence is that all your dramatic choices imagine that the acting will be fantastic in your play: for Children of Oedipus the sonorous, powerful drumbeats could have fitted very nicely into a generally strong performance, but in this middling, uninspired rendition, felt overbearing and ineffectual simultaneously. On the whole, this performance was fine: the play was delivered, the meaning got across, the lines remembered. Yet it seemed to lack any lift, any buzz, any tension, and in consequence one left feeling underwhelmed and uninspired – there was an unshakeable and destructive feeling that all involved were merely going through the motions. Euripides deserves better, but like all tragedians, seems fated never to get a truly effective, exciting modern treatment.