Robert Icke's Oedipus: a time-bending, contemporary take on Sophocles's tragedy

Icke’s Oedipus sees its protagonist zooming towards his own downfall at supersonic speed: a 100-metre dash straight into a brick wall.

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Robert Icke has a thing for playing with time. The British director’s Oedipus for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, which premiered in the Netherlands in April 2018 and now makes its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival, is performed to an illuminated stop clock counting down from two hours to zero. Or does it?

Time is slippery where Oedipus is concerned. The programme states the running time as “approximately two hours”, the EIF website says “1 hour 45 minutes”, and the digital display itself reaches 00:00:00 at a crucial juncture somewhat prior to the curtain call. In fact, 15 minutes have already disappeared when the actors first speak following a video clip that – I swear – does not last a quarter of an hour. Moreover, if you train your eyes on it, I’m sure that clock possesses the ability to magic away whole minutes from the display. And its seconds? I’m not sure they really last a whole second. Maybe they’re more like an eighth of a second…

There could, of course, be nothing dodgy with the clock. This could be a trick of perception – can I really estimate the duration of a video that accurately? – because what actually matters here is the sense that time is sped-up and the doomed Oedipus (Hans Kesting) is unstoppably hurtling towards the revelation that will seal his fate.

Performed in Dutch with English subtitles, Icke’s take on Sophocles’ tragedy imagines Oedipus as a maverick politician on the cusp of winning an election with promises of a better, brighter and fairer future for the populace. His campaign posters are borrowed straight from the Obama electoral campaign and so are his critics: there are cries for Oedipus to make public his birth certificate. As they wait for the results to come in, Oedipus and his family retire to the campaign HQ, which is being rapidly dismantled and packed away by the hangers-on of Team Oedipus.

Unlike in the original, there is no suggestion Oedipus was given the prophesy of murdering his father and marrying his mother prior to doing either. His first notification comes from the aged Teiresias (Hugo Koolschijn), whose words Oedipus dismisses as either New Age claptrap or politically motivated lies. Icke’s Oedipus, then, is never given the chance to at least try avoiding the prophesy by, for example, not marrying someone older than him. It’s a minor change, but it heightens the sense that it’s Oedipus’s obsessive search for the truth of how Laius, his political predecessor and wife’s former husband, died – more than the fact of the patricide and the incest – that sees him zooming towards his own downfall at supersonic speed.

Icke’s other time-bending productions, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, both at the Almeida Theatre, slowed everything down to the speed of black treacle dripping off a cold spoon. The Wild Duck did this by repeatedly breaking up the performed sections of the narrative with meta-theatrical monologues about the writing of the play and its historical context, so the impending tragedy was kept tantalisingly out of reach. Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, meanwhile, delivered his lines with such huge, heavy and long pauses the collective breath-holding of the audience was almost audible. But where they were both masterpieces of delayed gratification, Oedipus is a 100-metre dash straight into a brick wall.

Icke is frequently compared to Ivo van Hove, artistic director of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, which merged with Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg to become Internationaal Theater Amsterdam in January 2018. From a British perspective, both men create the type of slick, sexy and radical rewrites of the classical canon deemed European in approach. There are similarities, but it’s a lazy comparison: while Van Hove regularly directs visually and formally impressive work that’s easy to objectively admire but hard to respond to emotionally, Icke is all about big, messy, overwhelming feelings. Look at the audience of an Icke play as the lights go up and it’s not uncommon to see whole rows of people wiping tears or sitting silent and shell-shocked.

Oedipus is no different. And with everything moving so fast, it becomes a race just to process the emotions of the piece while watching it. Many of the most affecting moments involve Jocaste (Marieke Heebink) who, in Icke’s version, expands to become almost as important a character as her husband/son. Revealing the secrets of his past involves voicing her own buried trauma of being impregnated as a 13-year-old by Laius, then having the child instantly abducted, presumed murdered.

As these horrible truths burble up and out of her, she recounts how the pregnancy made the skin of her adolescent body turn translucent and the doctor damaged the baby’s legs wrenching him out of her. It’s a brutal and viscerally personal story pitched right into the heart of this posturing political set-up, where crucial plot points relate to chauffeur protocol, boy racer mishaps and dinner table debates about mistresses. Heebink’s hands look like they’re physically holding her body together as she speaks and, for the only time in the whole play, everything goes still.

Oedipus runs at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh until 17 August.