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Oedipus review at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘devastatingly tense and captivatingly performed’

Hans Kesting and Marieke Heebink in Internationaal Theater Amsterdam's Oedipus. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The clock is ticking. Robert Icke’s reworking of Sophocles – his first production for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, performed in Dutch with surtitles – casts Oedipus as a politician on the night of an election.

The production takes place in his campaign office, the clock counting down the minutes in real time as Oedipus, his family and staff, await the election results. Over the course of two hours, secrets will emerge that will steer him towards tragedy, beginning with his decision to dredge up the circumstances of the death of previous leader Laius in a car crash. The audience is fully aware of the destination but the production’s power lies in the way it reveals the shape of the road, the awful dawning of the truth.

Icke employs many devices that have featured in his previous work. Along with the clock, there’s scene-setting video footage care of Tal Yarden and a sleek, minimalist set by Hildegard Bechtler, full of tastefully plain furniture and an abundance of concealing screens. To say the aesthetic is familiar would be an understatement, but at the same time Icke makes these classical characters feel contemporary, nuanced and human, working the same magic as he did in his adaptation of Oresteia, drilling down through the emotional layers of the text. It’s not quite as poetic or expansive as that earlier adaptation, but it’s no less potent.

Dutch actor Hans Kesting: ‘The longer I play successful shows, the more nervous I get’

As his dad expires off-stage from cancer, Oedipus fixates on the prophecy delivered by Tiresias. He attempts to shrug it off, but he can’t. An early scene in which Polynices comes out to his family underscores the play’s themes, but the real strength of Icke’s production is the way it makes it clear that this is as much Jocasta’s tragedy as that of Oedipus.

Marieke Heebink – a magnificent Medea in Simon Stone’s production for the company – plays Jocasta as a woman who has survived an abusive relationship and has now found a contentment that will soon be brutally ripped away from her. The devastating scene in which Heebink reveals the full horror of what she went through, the extent of her misuse at the hands of powerful men, her child taken from her when she was little more than a child herself, is captivatingly played. The sense of long-buried pain rising up in her is palpable, like bile in the throat.

Hans Kesting’s charismatic Oedipus is equally compelling. The scene in which they cling to one another, after the truth of the situation becomes clear, is incredibly powerful. They’re both superb performers – the whole ensemble is strong but they’re operating on another level – and they are electric together. Longing, loss and love radiate from them in equal measure.

The ITA house-style can be unremittingly clinical and this production does little to alter that – it’s starting to feel a little repetitive. But Icke has a lightness of touch that Ivo van Hove sometimes lacks. His grasp of tension and the inexorable is second to none, and his ability to take these plays and reshape them while retaining their essence remains impressive.

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Verdict
Robert Icke’s devastatingly tense and captivatingly performed reshaping of Sophocles’ play
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