Review: Oedipus, Stadschouwberg Amsterdam

Robert Icke tackles Oedipus with the same verve as his celebrated Oresteia in a spectacular Toneelgroep Amsterdam production

“‘Het draait alles om, maar staat zelf stil”

You wouldn’t think Robert Icke could do it again, especially in another language, but his version of Oedipus for Toneelgroep Amsterdam is quite frankly phenomenal. Shifting it into the world of contemporary politics and digging into his familiar bag of tricks doesn’t seem revolutionary on paper but on stage, it was just electric. I don’t think the ticking countdown has ever been so brutally effective.

Hans Kesting’s Oedipus is a breath of fresh air in the politics of this Thebes and Icke sets the play in real time on election night, confining the action to the campaign office where Oedipus awaits the result with his family and friends. That wait is filled with tension, not least because he’s decided to start investigating the death of previous leader Laius which, if you’re not familiar with the plot, is a whole can of worms…

But though this is a story that many may already know, Icke’s adaptation really does make us see it anew, adding in beautifully written character moments for everyone, really fleshing out this would-be-dynasty-in-the-making. So we find out so much more about Marieke Heebink’s Jocasta than we ever would normally, her abusive marriage to that very Laius and the child he forced on her at 14, and so a real emotional connection is forged with her happier second marriage and one that we get to witness with their electric chemistry.  

So too do Hélène Devos’ Antigone and Harm Duco Schut’s Polynices shine with their own moments about love and family, which deepen in significance when the future is considered (particularly in Polynices’ squabbles with his brother Eteocles) but still resonate strongly on their own here. Polynices’ coming out to his father is neatly done and teases out and reflects a strand of truth-telling that ultimately defines Oedipus’ entire fate as he can’t help but reveal everything he discovers, even as catastrophe looms over those revelations.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set is all corporate clean lines with Tal Yarden’s ever-excellent video work playing an integral part to showing us the outside world. But the focus is brilliantly on the ever-shrinking world of this family – the election team dismantling the set from behind to emphasise the point – with Natasha Chivers’ lighting shifting the mood as the glitching clock gets ever closer to zero.

An expected coda emerges as a prologue and further tips up our expectations as we’re reminded of what was, what could have been, and the difference made when our politicians seem like decent human beings for once. More importantly, it gives Heebink and Kesting another moment to burn like fire in their characters’ love for one another – two sensational performances crowning a superlative production.

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)
Photos: Jan Versweyveld
Oedipus is booking at the Stadschouwberg Amsterdam

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