The New old Greek Tragedies

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What could be more appropriate a finale to David Raeburn’s famous Greek Plays in the Cloisters of New College than to perform Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, second to none as an icon of its genre. Indeed, the masterly production of this absolute gem last week is the right point to reflect on this annual play series – a real institution of the Oxford’s theatre scene as much as of the Classics world of New College and the University as a whole.

The success of Raeburn’s directing of the Bacchae and Electra in the last two years is only to be mirrored if not furthered by this year’s production. But we really ought to appreciate his approach to drama in full. For he really wants to bring his audience back to the roots, to the crux of Greek tragedy.

What makes Raeburn’s work so special is his unquestioning commitment to the nature of this theatre in Classical Athens. Last week’s Oedipus Tyrannus was indicative of this, because all elements of the production were seamlessly cohering into an accurate revival of the ancient experience. The strict period costumes deployed catchy symbols such as Tiresias’ long grey beard or the shepherd’s straw hat. The audience’s arrangement in a semi-circle and the round orchestra, which the chorus can fully occupy during its appearances, puts the ancient play into its natural habitat.

One of the co-producers, Christopher Jotischky, described the dynamics of Raeburn’s directing. He always has a very definite sense of how the play should look to the audience,and a meticulous attention to detail, which results in deeply nuanced performances from the solo actors also from the chorus.”

This is not the least because Raeburn unites translator and director in one person, to the effect of full control over all aspects of the production. And this really begins with the spoken word itself. His own English translation, in which Raeburn is very conscious of imitating the Greek original in its atmosphere, tone and – most important for a play – in the effect of its performance, makes the text fit perfectly into the theatrical setting.

Jotischky’s experience shows the effect, “There is also a sense that the actual words are just as important, and that the play’s quality as a piece of literature as well as purely dramatic creation must always shine through.” The chorus’ odes stand out as a case in point. Originally sung in iambic trimeter, their poetic value is preserved in the Englishby Raeburn’s 5-beats-per-line rhythmical translation, which is chanted to the beating of a drum.

The cast was also thoroughly convincing with an emotionally engaged and engaging King Oedipus (Harry Samuels), whose interplay with Tiresias (Louis Prosser) and Creon (Daniel Byam Shaw), both fantastic acting performances, brought out the power of Sophoclean dialogue in full. The messenger’s speech (Edward Grigg) was a sublime example of how Greek tragedy circumvents violence on stage by means of report that fails not in conveying the brutality of Oedipus’ self- defiling act.

Of course Sophocles’ architecture of the play is strongly reliant on dramatic irony and the element of the comic in this can pose a real challenge to any production. But Raeburn succeeds in navigating the comic elements of the hidden allusions and puns about Oedipus’ fate without violating the greater picture of tragedy. 

Oedipus Tyrannus was a worthy grand finale to his theatrical work at New College – if really it was the finale. With no one to fill his shoes emerging, as of yet, we are anxious to see Rae- burn abandon his work. For the good of the- atre in Oxford, this is an appeal to you, David Raeburn. We trust that the remaining gems in the canon of the Tragedians will inspire you for the years to come. 

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