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Thebans @ English National Opera

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by Cressida Ryan (subscribe)
Classicist and traveller
Event: -
Everyone knows Oedipus, right? The one where he marries his mother and kills his father? Well... there were three plays dealing with this family disaster, and for the first time all three have been brought together in an extravaganza of intense music and text by Julian Anderson and Frank McGuiness. Personally, I wasn't convinced overall, but there is so much to recommend the experience that I would suggest going to Thebans if you're a fan of modern music, Greek plays, ENO, or the other components.

The three plays were composed in the order Antigone, Oedipus the King (OT), Oedipus at Colonus (OC). They were never intended to be a trilogy, and have only been so since modern editions put them together, the first example being John Burton's 1758 Pentalogia. The order presented here, however, makes no sense. According to the narrative, they should be OT, OC, Antigone. McGuiness argues that to finish with Antigone would involve a 'massive downer', but I don't see this needs to be problematic with a tragedy. Nor does the OC end happily, as it sees Polynices head back to his doom in Thebes. McGuiness also reworks the order of episodes in the OC, which breaks this tension, breaks the increasing trajectory of Oedipus' growing strength and rehabilitation.

Indeed, this awkwardness of emotional and power arcs was the hardest thing for me to take on board. In the OT, Oedipus started to break down so early on, in the scene with Tiresias, that his downfall felt peculiarly staggered. The distraught final entrance was not matched by a strong start. Bringing Jocasta's body on at the end broke Oedipus' isolation. In Antigone, the prologue was cut. The play is Creon's tragedy, but we need Antigone to build this up. Cutting her, Ismene and Epicaste (his wife, who commits suicide in the play), and leaping straight to Creon's political speechifying, dramatically reduced the emotional buildup and power of the show.

ENO, thebans, opera
Thebans programme


There were some other slightly peculiar points of discontinuity brought out by the production, which might annoy a pedantic viewer. For example: Antigone is described as 'my small one' in OT, whilst being played as an adult woman. Oedipus remains bloodstained in the OC, despite an elapse of time since the OT; has nobody washed his face? They describe themselves as all alone, on a stage housing other characters.

The show is well-sung. We're perhaps not expecting the messenger to be a counter-tenor, but Christopher Ainslie performs the role admirably. Jocasta as a part isn't quite Stravinsky's imposing role (but Anderson wasn't aiming for such 'monumental neoclassicism'. Bickley sings her part excellently, with incredible, intense facial expressions and the one vividly coloured costume in the show, which draws you in magnetically. Her part seemed to be accompanied more frequently by a harp, which gave a strong musical grounding to the role. The leads Roland Wood (Oedipus) and Peter Hoare(Creon) both sang well; sections such as the exposed unaccompanied opening to Antigone showed off Hoare's skill, accuracy and interpretation most clearly.

Musically, the show is a good example of modern composition. The martial nature of Antigone is enhanced by the focus on simple crotchet rhythms, and this is echoed in the very strong choreographed movements by the audience. The orchestra played well, although sometimes overwhelmed the singers in Antigone.

The costumes were reasonably timeless, with elements of middle eastern attire (particularly tunics and headdress). The OT was performed in white, Antigone in black, a sharp juxtaposition that completely changed the mood of the stage, from supplicant to deathly.

ENO, thebans, opera
Thebans banner


The staging focused around big wire cages full of rocks. These suffered slightly when Oedipus was slammed into them (OT) and the whole thing wobbled, but otherwise they provided a solid theme throughout the shows, and a powerful reminder of the physical and emotional rubble of the plays. A central dais in OT allowed each key character in an episode to 'take the floor' and be brought into the limelight. It wasn't a predictable or static performance, but still the use of such a focal point was very powerful.

A trailer is available here.

Reviews have generally been extremely positive. It's true that this is an impressive production, generally well-sung, and coherent in its well-executed conception. Overall, I'm more sceptical, but I don't deny its strengths. It deserves seeing for the sake of making up your own mind.
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Why? A modern opera on a timeless tale
When: 17th, 23rd, 31st May, 3rd June
Where: London Coliseum
Cost: From 5
Your Comment
Sounds interesting and I'm not usually one for opera. Great price too!
by Erin Connelly (score: 2|522) 1557 days ago
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