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Oedipus? He's not just a guy who married his mother...

The Sophocles play is getting a new outing on the Abbey stage. Its director and musical director tell us what to expect.

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IF YOU KNOW one thing about Oedipus, you know this: he was a man who slept with his mother.

You’ve also probably heard of Freud’s controversial Oedipus Complex, where he suggested that children harbour a subconscious desire for their parents. So far, so… well, disturbing.

The real Oedipus was a character from Greek tragedy, the mythical king of the very first city, Thebes. Though his story is often synonymous with his act of (unknowingly) marrying his mother, there’s more to it than just that. It’s about society, community, and facing up to dark realities.

Sophocles explored the story in the play Oedipus The King (Oedipus Rex), and now acclaimed Irish director Wayne Jordan is bringing a new production of this very play to the Abbey Theatre stage. It turns out that there’s much to connect this ancient work to the post-Celtic Tiger, post-recession Ireland that we live in today.

Barry John O'Connor (Oedipus) in Wayne Jordan's new version of Oedipus b... (1) Barry John O'Connor as Oedipus

Why Oedipus?

Jordan has spent many years working with the Abbey, chiefly on Irish texts. It was his work on Yeats’ texts that brought him to the writer’s work on Oedipus.

Inspired by Yeats’ work, Jordan wanted to explore how the themes in the play connected to Ireland.

“I thought the play was about a number of things I felt were relevant or related to the Irish condition, in that it was about a city,” explained Jordan.

He has sex with his mum, and although that is the big reveal with the play, I’m not sure that is what it’s about. Sexual attraction is not what it’s about. It’s a play about a city that desperately wants to change and in which the people of the city don’t want to be the ones to do the change themselves. It’s crying out for leadership.

Jordan described the play as being about leadership and identity: “What responsibility are we willing to take for the change we know needs to take place in our lives?”

Jordan is known for using music in a very interesting way in his work, and once again is collaborating with Tom Lane. Lane’s background is in choral music, and he was charged with composing the music for the 19 members of the cast to perform.

(L-R) Chorus members Ger Kelly, Shane O'Reilly and Pat Nolan rehearse Oe... Chorus members in rehearsal

Take me to the music

The set is really stripped back, with 100 chairs on the stage. “It will hopefully be a simple, clear and searing telling of a story that with a bit of luck will unlock something inside the audience”, said Jordan.

The play doesn’t look like it’s set in Greece of old – the cast are dressed in contemporary clothing. The hope is that people will watch and think “this was written so long ago; [yet] so much of our culture has resonated from it”, explained the director.

Having worked together on the likes of Twelfth Night, Jordan and Lane have a solid working relationship.

“The first thing Wayne said to me was he wanted the chorus to sing in parts, in complex or extended musical styles,” said Lane. “So not songs, not like a musical, not numbers necessarily; but something that’s more slightly heightened, more developed.”

Tom Lane - Picture Liv O'Donoghue Tom Lane Source: Liv O'Donoghue

They held workshops, gathering actors who could sing, but who had a range of experience. It’s not an easy task being in a chorus – you might not be singing what the person next to you is singing.

“More than any kind of music, really you have to listen because you’re part of a whole,” said Lane. “It’s not an opera, it’s not a singer-songwriter thing. You have to be aware of everyone else all the time. It’s like the ultimate team experience because you have to be aware and listening to everyone else but also completely responsible for your own bit.”

He described the music for this play as “a novel as opposed to a greetings card”, where the music wants to put across an emotion but not in a manipulative way.

Tom Lane and Chorus rehearse Oedipus for Abbey stage Pic Ros Kavanagh (1)

Cities and singing

While composing, Lane and Jordan looked at how the music was sung – would it be together, in harmony, or one person? Would everyone be singing together in the same rhythm?

“If everyone is singing together and singing the same rhythm it’s a unified thing,” explained Lane. This can mean that the singers are agreeing, which has an impact on what the audience thinks of what the actors are expressing.

Like Jordan, Lane emphasises that the play isn’t just about one man. It’s about multiple voices. “As much as it is about Oedipus, it’s really about how the city Thebes – or it could be any city or society – deals with what’s happening,” said Lane.

That’s the underlying thing and that was a really big deal at the time in Athens, they were one of the first democracies, one of the first cities that were organised and dynamic. So you can extend that into the singing.

Barry John O'Connor (Oedipus) in Wayne Jordan's new version of Oedipus b...

“From the outset it’s a tragedy and it’s not a comedy so there’s a certain… bleakness or starkness to the music,” said Lane.

There’s not a lot of positivity to the play, so “when it does come, it’s startling”, said Lane. With people revealing terrible things, “the music is a chance for you to absorb it in a more direct emotional way rather than picking up the words”.

Given that Jordan is one of Ireland’s leading young directors, and Lane is proving that he’s a musical force to be reckoned with, this new production of Oedipus sounds like it might shatter preconceptions about this very old – but not always understood – play.

Oedipus opens at the Abbey Theatre on 24 September as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. It runs until 30 October.

Read: The Abbey theatre stage has been transformed into an icy bog for this dark play>

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