In the first scene, a dishevelled and devastated Jocasta (Caitlin McMillan) shuffles about the stage, projecting her agony onto the auditorium. She struggles to find direction, assembling with the nondescript 20th century furniture and single vase of flowers a semblance of domestic normality in a household tormented by an unspeakable but unwitting abomination.
With the story being as infamous as it is, Jocasta’s soliloquy recounting the well-known legend to us (which culminated in her marriage to her son) functions as a form of self-torture. McMillan’s speech is mesmerising; with relish she remembers her young Oedipus (whose burgeoning manhood is a source of delight for her, and so a little disgust for us) before stuttering to a stop. “My name is Jocasta. My name is Jocasta. My name is Jocasta.” She persistently attempts but struggles to comprehend her own place in the terrible narrative she is making while assembling a banal 150-piece puzzle.
The puzzle device enacts the precarious truce established by her two (grand)sons, the rational, plain-speaking Polyneices (Hannah Gliksten), admirably restraining his furious indignation, and the at-times brilliantly petulant Eteocles (Helen Slaney), who pitifully and child-like pleads for Jocasta’s approval (but “I’m good in all else” mummy). Slaney’s argufying (or lack of) excellently resorts to something only one level above stamping her foot, embodying Eteocles’s selfish and vain ambition (“Power, my goddes”) and her descent into violence causes the calamitous ruining of the partially assembled puzzle, to everyone’s terror.
The fate of a city is being decided apparently by two warring brothers, but it is the others who deal with the ensuing collapse of order. An elderly, almost bureaucratic Creon (Philip Gemmel) is charged by Tiresias (Ella Cory-Wright) “Where are your laws now?” after the seer drops his bombshell (after much delay and well-crafted tension) and the Tutor quite misses the mark altogether with Uday Raj Anand’s well-interpreted good but futile intentions. Not only does the play Shakespeareanly deal with the effects of the decisions of an older generation upon a younger one, but it also revolves around a “curse,” exposited for us by a doddery, creepy Cory-Wright, whose prophetic powers are eerily channeled through the static of an old Robertson radio. Tiresias’s superb physicality draws us towards Menoeceus (Matthew Ball) who evolves from at first a sweet favourite of Jocasta and the prophet into an heroic young man.
The standard of acting, it being a press preview aside, was so good that I struggle to see how there can be any dramatic improvements, but moreover, it is adaptor and director Arabella Currie’s brilliantly written and realised vision which makes this an unusual and enticing Oxford play, and one to be highly recommended.