STRATFORD — Thanks to Sigmund Freud, most of us know something about Oedipus.
But general knowledge does not prepare us for the searing power of the ancient Greek tragedy on which the Vienna psychiatrist based his famous complex.
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is as blunt as a fatal whack across the back of your head. Oedipus, king of Thebes, kills his father and marries his mother, fathering two sons and two daughters with her. He isn’t aware of what he has done — not exactly — but he fears the worst because of the Delphic oracle.
Witnessing the prophecy transform into fate is one of the most devastating ordeals theatregoers can experience.
When Oedipus Rex is staged in the Tom Patterson Theatre, as it is this season, the tragedy becomes up-close and personal.
Oedipus’ individual actions — patricide, incest and revenge — have dire consequences for the society he rules. As the blind prophet Teirsias points out, Oedipus is the plague that is decimating the city and the citizens he loves so much.
Toronto-based director Daniel Brooks makes an auspicious Stratford Festival debut. Artistic director of Necessary Angel from 2003 to 2012 and now an associate director at Soulpepper, Brooks subtly bridges ancient Thebes and modern Greece, now suffering from the financial plague of paralyzing debt.
Led powerfully by Deidre Gillard-Rowlings, the multi-gender chorus is dressed by designer Victoria Wallace in dark grey flannel suits — the corporate uniform of international investment bankers.
Camellia Koo’s cold, antiseptic set consists of metal stacking chairs, metal desk and matching chair, two columns of metal scaffolding, search lights and microphone and speakers. The backdrop is a monumental sheet of translucent plastic which is used effectively at play’s end. At times the chorus sits on chairs placed on the floor surrounding the stage, turning the stage itself into a large corporate boardroom table.
Gord Rand is a riveting Oedipus, portrayed here as an arrogant, self-assured CEO ‘born to suffer.’ He’s not prepared for the fall from wealth, prestige, privilege and power which reduces him to a state of abject agony — alone, tortured, disgraced, shamed, blind and naked (literally as well as figuratively).
Yanna McIntosh is sensually regal as Oedipus’ mother/wife Jocasta, while Christopher Morris is a model of sympathy as Oedipus’ mistreated uncle Kreon.
Kevin Bundy is appropriately oily as the larcenous Messenger and Lally Cadeau delivers a stunning cameo performance as the Servant.
Last but not least, Nigel Bennett is a compelling Teirsias, but it’s beyond me why he appears as either transgender or transexual (I’m not sure which) attired in gold earrings and bracelets, burgundy and gold scarf, dark nail polish and cool green high-heel pumps.
Seldom in world literature does the quest for knowledge attract such pain, suffering and grief as it does in Oedipus Rex. The Tree of Knowledge in the Book of Genesis seems absolutely delicious in comparison.
The performance runs one hour and 45 minutes without intermission.
Oedipus Rex continues through Sept. 18 at the Tom Patterson Theatre.Tickets are available at 1-800-567-1600 or online at stratfordfestival.ca
(Featured image and production photo by photography Don Dixon)