Thebans: man’s battle against the fates

In the ancient Greek tale of Oedipus, the champion who outwitted the Sphinx and became king of Thebes, his efforts to avoid Apollo’s prophecy – that he will murder his father and marry his mother – lead to his demise. In Sophocles’s Theban plays, it is the power of fate that drives Oedipus, and the city he ruled, to destruction. However, a new opera, Julian Anderson’s Thebans, takes a slightly different approach to this age-old text.

At first, it is the pleas of the Theban people that drive Oedipus (Roland Wood) to discover the truth about his past. On stage, the Thebans’ suffering bodies, draped in leprous white, fill the space between massive stone walls. They implore him to find out who killed King Laius, Oedipus’s predecessor, and thus lift the curse of disease that has haunted the city since Laius’s death: ‘Great, good Oedipus, you’ve saved us before. Save us now!’ However, soon it is Oedipus’s own desire to learn more about himself that drives him to investigate the secret of Laius’s death.

Both Anderson’s score and playwright Frank McGuinness’s libretto retain the sparseness of Sophocles’ plays. The most shocking moments are often only gestured to, leaving the full horror to our imagination. Sometimes a rattling of detuned percussion is enough to create a sense of foreboding; a single voice can tell us just enough to fill in the rest for ourselves.

However, the parallels director Pierre Audi tries to draw between the totalitarian Thebes under Creon (Peter Hoare), who takes the throne after Oedpius’s departure in Act 2, and twentieth-century fascism feel confused and heavy-handed; especially after the classical understatement of Act 1. In Audi’s rendering, Creon is such an obvious baddie from his first entrance. Audi seems to suggest that it is not fate that leads to tragedy, but the evil deeds of megalomaniacs and their all-too-compliant populations. But there’s no escaping that it is Apollo’s prophecy, not Creon, that sets the infernal machine in motion.

This being a Greek tragedy, things go from bleak to bleaker. Act 3 – ‘Present: The death of Oedipus’ – brings us to Colonus, a blasted landscape reminiscent of a renaissance crucifixion scene, all stones and dead trees. Like Lear, Oedipus is tended only by his loyal daughter Antigone (Julia Sporsén) – and, like Lear, he curses his other children, warring sons Polynices and Eteocles.

It is a bleak setting, until King Theseus arrives. He is played here by Chris Ainslie, the same golden-voiced countertenor who also plays the Messenger, who brings news of the horrific denouements of Acts 1 and 2. This casting is intriguing. One wonders if the countertenor is supposed to be Apollo himself, taking on different guises and delivering the news each time one of his ghastly prophecies is fulfilled.

Sophocles’s overriding theme, that of the struggle of mortals against their fate, is still a vital one. Despite trying to take the tale in a different, more political direction, this opera still brings this theme to life in a way that is as universal as the original plays. At times, the production tries a little too hard to guide our interpretation, but it leaves plenty of space for the consistently fine performances, the telling words and the masterful music to do their work.

Timandra Harkness is a writer, performer and radio presenter. Visit her website here.

Thebans is at the Coliseum, London until 3 June 2014. Buy tickets here.

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